By Carsten Volkery in London
The photos were planned with meticulous care. Gordon Brown at the harbor; Gordon Brown at the factory; Gordon Brown spending time with the common folk. The British prime minister used the first working days of the new year to present himself as a decisive leader in times of crisis. For three days last week he toured through parts of Great Britain that are particularly threatened by recession: from London via Derby to Liverpool and onwards to Wales. The point was to listen and learn, as Brown said every chance he got.
In Derby, Brown visited the Rolls Royce jet engine factory, a company with a much-praised apprenticeship program. While there, Brown promised that he wanted to create 35,000 similar new trainee programs throughout the country in 2009. In Liverpool, European Capital of Culture in 2008, Brown inspected the newly refurbished docks and a museum that is currently under construction. Tourism, Brown intoned, is important for the future of the economy and could help the country out of the recession.
And yet, no matter how hard the prime minister tried to exude optimism, his tour was accompanied by an unbroken series of bad economic tidings. And each new bit of bad news served to show more clearly than the last that Brown's brief stint as financial savior has come to a decisive end. His popularity is falling once again.
He had hardly started off on the first leg of his trip from London to Derby when the bottom started to fall out. News emerged that high street retailer Marks & Spencer was cutting 1,200 jobs and closing a number of stores. In Derby, Brown visited a branch of the fashion chain Viyella, which declared bankruptcy last week. In Liverpool on Thursday, Brown learned that Nissan was cutting 1,200 jobs from its factory in Sunderland.
And the bad news just kept coming. On Friday, as Brown was traveling through Wales and Britain's southwest, the news emerged that the London real estate giant Foxtons was fighting for its survival. Then, the CEO of the supermarket chain Sainsbury's, Justin King, slammed Brown's sales tax (value-added tax) cut from 17.5 percent to 15 percent, saying it was ineffective. He was the third top manager in three days to voice a similar criticism.
Even the recent interest rate cut, which saw the Bank of England cut its benchmark rate to a record low of 1.5 percent on Thursday, has been blasted in the press for being ineffectual. The last rate cuts, commentators point out, also did nothing to loosen up the financial markets.
Brown, for his part, continues to put a brave face on things and does what he can to combat the growing mood of crisis in Britain. He held a cabinet meeting in Liverpool on Thursday as a symbol of his efforts to help the entire country face the economic downturn. In the 1980s, Liverpool became a symbol of the recession. This time around, Brown promised, he would not, in contrast to then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, give up on the port city. On Monday, he held a "job summit" in London at which he promised to spend £500 million (500 million) to stop rising unemployment. On Tuesday, he is meeting with US Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke, and on Wednesday he is off to Berlin to consult with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In short, Brown is doing everything that the head of government is expected to do when facing a crisis. But it doesn't seem to be working. Even worse, his hyperactivity in the face of the never ending flood of negative headlines is making the British prime minister appear ineffectual. His Labour Party is once again losing support in the public opinion polls. According to the most recent poll from YouGov, backing for Labour hovers at just 34 percent while the Tories enjoy 41 percent support. Labour's rise in recent months seems to have come to a stop.
Brown's personal approval ratings have likewise begun falling. "The 'Brown bounce' is coming to an end," the Independent wrote recently in an article headlined "Brown goes from boom to bust." A new survey of companies and top managers in Britain, carried out by ComRes, found that just 28 percent have confidence in Brown as a crisis manager. As recently as last October, that number was 42 percent.
It is a loss of popularity that could very well affect the timing of the next elections in Britain. Brown's term runs until 2010. But last autumn, when it appeared that Brown could do no wrong, many observers speculated that he might call early elections to take advantage of his popularity. Plus, commentators argued, the longer he waits, the worse the recession will get and thus, the more difficult it will be for Brown, as the incumbent, to win the election. Unemployment, for example, has already climbed over 2 million -- with further increases expected.
The prime minister recently has repeated over and over again that an election in 2009 "is the last thing on my mind." During his tour through the country last week, he once again said that he isn't even planning to think about the election.
Still, he hasn't explicitly ruled out the eventuality of an election this year either. And given current trends, it would appear that he can't really afford to wait.
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