Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Comeback Kid at 10 Downing Street?

I've written several posts about the political difficulties of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. However, he has lately been experiencing something of a renaissance.

Two events over the past month or so have helped Brown.

First, he came through the parties' conference season quite well.

Each of the British parties holds an annual conference in early autumn. These are similar in many ways to American party conventions. They are a chance for the party faithful to gather, and for party leaders to get television exposure.

However, they are held more frequently. The American parties' national conventions have, with a handful of exceptions, been once-every-four-years affairs. The Democratic Party held midterm conventions in 1974, 1978 and 1982, but the idea failed to catch on.

British party conferences are held annually, regardless of the election cycle.

Another difference is that the British parties don't tend to choose their leaders at these conferences, not even to the extent that American conventions ratify choices already decided in primaries and caucuses.

The centerpiece of each British conference is the leader's speech, a televised event that sets the tone for his or her party's year, and can make or break a prime minister.

It was the leader's speech at the 2007 Conservative conference that derailed plans for Brown to schedule an immediate general election to ratify his promotion to prime minister. An impressive performance by Tory leader David Cameron lifted his party's standing in the polls. That caused Brown to determine that a snap election was not in the national interest, after all.

That caused a downward spiral for the prime minister. As his Labor Party's 2008 conference was about to begin, he was like a prizefighter on the ropes. But this year, it was Brown who wowed his audience with a better-than-expected speech.

Brown's television performance was aided by a tactic he borrowed from Al Gore. The introduction speech was given by the prime minister's wife Sarah. That speech, and an onstage kiss between the first couple, served to humanize Brown, whose image as a dour policy wonk had exacerbated his troubles with the electorate. Gore, who has a similar image problem, seemed to benefit politically from a passionate kiss he shared with his wife, Tipper, at the 2000 Democratic convention that nominated him for president.

The second positive effect for Brown has resulted from the global financial crisis. It has allowed the prime minister, who built a reputation for competent economic management during his decade as chancellor of the Exchequer, to showcase his experience in financial matters. This BBC report quotes the word "superhero" being applied to the man who, just a month ago, was seen as an incompetent politician slated for early retirement.

Here is a summary of the parties' standing in various British opinion polls. Before the party conferences, the Conservatives led by around 20 percentage points. They're still in the lead, but their lead is now closer to the neighborhood of 10 percentage points.

The deadline for the next general election is about a year and a half away. David Cameron's move into 10 Downing Street is looking a little less inevitable.

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