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British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

Has Public Opinion of Gordon Brown Changed?

October 21, 2008 07:00 PM
by Josh Katz
Gordon Brown has been lauded for leading Europe and the United States in responding to the economic crisis. But polls and commentators have differing opinions on the PM.

Brown, Before and After Economic Initiatives

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s response to the economic crisis has received acclaim in the U.K. and abroad. Just two weeks ago Brown’s approval ratings sank lower “than any prime minister in recent history,” according to Newsweek, and he made some major changes to his cabinet in the hopes of turning his image around. He brought back former bitter enemy Peter Mandelson, who had been forced out of the cabinet on two occasions in the past because of scandals.

But then Brown spearheaded a program of government intervention to save the banks and bolster the economy that was followed by other nations, including the United States. In order to revive money circulation, “Brown crafted a plan to pump money directly into three of Britain’s biggest banks and guarantee their debts in return for bank shares,” USA Today reports.

Just before winning the Nobel Prize for economics, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman said, “Gordon Brown … may have shown us the way through this crisis,” according to Newsweek. French newspaper Le Monde compared him to Winston Churchill. British polls indicated that 33 percent of those questioned thought Brown would be more trustworthy during the financial crisis, while 27 percent favored his Conservative Party rival, David Cameron. Some have even wondered whether Brown will choose to call a snap election and ride the wave of support to victory.

On Sunday, Oct. 19, British newspaper The Independent released a poll substantially cutting the Conservative lead over Labour. At the end of August, the same poll gave the Conservative Party a 46 to 25 percent lead. On Sunday, the lead was only 40 to 31 percent. Cameron would probably need a lead of eight or more points to win, or there could be a hung Parliament. Tony Travers, who teaches British politics at the London School of Economics, agreed with Le Monde: “He’s had, in every sense, a Churchillian moment.”

But the good news could be illusory, at least in terms of poll numbers. The Guardian and ICM Ltd. published the results of their own poll on Tuesday, which indicate that Brown’s handling of the economic crisis is not helping his party, Agence France-Presse reports. According to the poll, 42 percent of voters favor the Conservative Party, while only 30 percent prefer Labour—a 12 percent difference. The Guardian released a poll a month ago with the same results, suggesting that Brown’s economic initiative did little to change public opinion, even though six out of 10 voters did think that Brown did a good job responding to the economic crisis in the recent poll. Furthermore, Cameron has argued that part of the reason the country is in the economic mess to begin with is because of Brown’s policies.

Opinion & Analysis: The Brown enigma

Ann Treneman of the Times of London explains how the economic situation transformed Brown—not simply in poll numbers, but in his own personality. His rival David Cameron, however, now appears like a mere mouse at Parliamentary meetings. “Gordon Brown in many ways looks a new man these days. I have never seen him, as Prime Minister, look as confident as he did yesterday in the House,” she writes. “It must be said that David Cameron is also a new man, and not in a good way. Indeed, did I say man? Perhaps I should have said mouse.”

On the other hand, Martin Kettle of The Guardian says that the recent poll taken by his newspaper speaks for itself: Gordon Brown is not helping his party. He says that the poll proves that “politicians and partisan commentators who should have known better have talked up with dizzying disregard for the political facts.” Commenting on the fact that the numbers in The Guardian poll are unchanged from a month ago, Kettle writes: “The world saved—and not a single percentage point in the polls to show for it. There’s gratitude for you.”

In World Politics Review, Douglas Davis is also skeptical of Brown’s alleged wave of support. He agrees that Brown has “dramatically returned from the dead,” but is not confident that Brown can maintain his momentum. The economic crisis will not be ephemeral, and the Deutsche Bank believes that Britain is “more vulnerable” to the collapse than the United States and some European countries. Davis blames such vulnerability on Brown’s heavy reliance on public and private borrowing. According to Davis, “Chances are that Flash Gordon will revert to brooding Brown.”

Philip Stephens of the Financial Times also fears an “emboldened” Gordon Brown and Labour Party, arguing that Brown “should beware his present pedestal.” Stephens worries that the interventionist government will become overburdened with borrowing, causing the national debt to soar; “extra borrowing now makes sense only alongside a credible commitment to restore fiscal probity later.”

But an editorial in The Independent suggests that, whatever the polls say, Gordon Brown is a changed man from the economic crisis. “What cannot be denied is that Mr. Brown has got his mojo back. He seems focused and confident.” What’s more, “Although 58 per cent opposed Mr. Brown’s use of taxpayers’ money to bail out the banks, only 25 per cent agreed that Mr. Cameron would have handled the bank crisis better had he been prime minister.”

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