Saturday, May 15, 2010

An era ends for Labour party in British politics

S Kalyana Ramanathan / London May 16, 2010

It was hardly a summer evening — cold, grey and depressing. But, an appropriate setting for the outgoing Prime Minister of Britain. On that evening of May 11, Gordon Brown, with his wife, Sarah, and two sons John and James, were getting ready to depart 10, Downing Street. It is very unlikely either Brown or his wife will ever step into the highest executive office in the UK again.

Brown wore the look of a defeated warrior. Even for a couple entrenched in the British tradition of not displaying their emotions in public, it was a hard battle holding back their tears. The husband and wife just about managed to veil their true feeling with a gentle smile. Before the final departure, Brown had delivered his last speech outside this office, on his way to meet the Queen and give his resignation. He used all the strength gathered from 27 years in cut-throat politics, gracefully accepted his defeat and said his last good-bye.

Even his most ruthless critics in the media watched him quietly and later admitted it was a truly touching moment. The fact that his toughest critics shared and empathised that brief moment of grief with him spoke volumes about the legacy Brown was leaving behind.

Speaking of legacy, the first thought that comes to a Brown-basher’s mind is the gaping hole in the country’s finances left behind for the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government to deal with. The public sector showed a deficit on the current budget of £14.8 billion in March 2010, compared with a deficit of £12 billion in March 2009. Brown was the prime minister in the last 32 months of the 13-year Labour rule in Britain. He came and left as “Gordon the unelected”, after he took charge from predecessor Tony Blair in June 2007.

With his failings, Brown got one thing right. In his closing remark at the third and last televised debate of the leaders on BBC, he said, “I know that if things stay as they are, perhaps in eight days’ time, David Cameron, perhaps supported by Nick Clegg, would be in office.” The prognosis was wrong only on the timing. It took 12 more days for the Brown-Labour era to end.

Brown’s political nemesis came with two heads. One of LibDem leader Nick Clegg and another one of Sky News and The Sun newspaper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch.

Just six months before the May 2010 election, The Sun, the country’s leading tabloid, announced it would not support Labour any more. Its front page on September 30 screamed, ‘Labour’s lost it’. Despite the shrugs from Brown and his Labour colleagues, this must have come as a massive blow. The Sun had supported Labour in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 election. A persistent campaign ensued. The day after Brown’s infamous ‘bigot’ gaffe, The Sun had the shortest and most damning title — ‘Brown Toast’. If the papers had a one-a-day chance to ram Brown’s campaign, Murdoch’s news channel, Sky News, did so 24x7. Sky’s political editor, Adam Boulton, led this campaign from the front. Despite some last-minute hiccups when it was not clear which side Clegg would slant his support, the Murdoch-backed Boulton team came on top. Mission accomplished.

It would be difficult to answer why Murdoch and his media empire had abandoned Labour in the 2010 election after 13 years of generous support. After all, The Sun had claimed it was the force behind Blair’s 1997 victory. The only man who can answer this question with certainty, Murdoch, is never going to answer it. Brown’s defeat was best summarised by Brown’s former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, when he said Brown’s defeat was one led by the media. This was true. As the election date neared, there was not a single paper or TV channel in country that even remotely supported Brown or

Labour. The best Brown and his team could expect was some sense of neutrality, that the BBC provided.

While Murdoch and his team played their part in Brown’s downfall, the real and final blow to his political career came from a completely unexpected person, Clegg, LibDem party leader. In his election campaign, he had in no ambiguous terms that he would not talk to Labour for a possible post-election coalition if Brown was its leader. Hence after the electorate returned a hung Parliament on May 6, Clegg walked over to the Tory party to start negotiations. As the talks slowly and painfully progressed, Brown and his team watched, hoping Clegg would change his mind. This did not happen. Under severe pressure, on May 10, Brown stepped down as leader of Labour, thus effectively ending any chance of becoming the next PM should the Lib-Lab coalition click. For a brief six hours the following day, it seemed like a “rainbow coalition’ of Lib-Lab with other smaller parties was taking shape.

As it turned out, this was just a smoke-screen. It was a Tory-Lib that made it to the finishing line. At 59, and after nearly three decades in politics, Brown went home to his constituency as a common man, holding no office in the government or his party. In his own words, he said he was going back to doing his most favourite job in the world — being a husband and a father of his two children.

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