ONE IS sauve, savvy and young. The other staid, shy and frumpy. But they are both vying for the same job. One has style, the other has substance, but both are fighting to clean up the image of their respective political parties with the electorate and become the next Prime Minister of Britain.
The last week has seen British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s authority pushed to the edge of collapse by cabinet resignations, backbench plots, a botched government reshuffle, disastrous election results and demands from one-time close colleagues that he should quit to save the Labour party. “The government goes on only in name,” said an MP, “in reality it is lifeless and going through the motions.”
The collapse in Labour’s vote at last Thursday’s local elections gave a fitting end to a disastrous month for Brown when his party lost two-thirds of the 500 seats it was defending. The Tories emerged nearly 300 seats up, winning more than six of every ten seats contested.
The expenses scandal has given the Opposition the perfect excuse to demand an early election despite the fact that all parties have been implicated in the scam. The PM-in-waiting David Cameron feels his time has come. Having dragged the Conservative party kicking and screaming into finally becoming a real contender for power, the media-savvy Cameron thinks he is in with a good chance to take the top job.
Just when Brown thought he was out of the woods, Labour leader Lord Falconer renewed his demand for him to step down. He acknowledged that replacing Brown would mean an early general election, but said that the party would go to the people in a stronger position.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown was largely responsible for the booming economy that kept the Blair government in power for the first ten years. It was a growing economy with full employment and nil inflation. He also indulged his redistributionist proclivities by heaping the worst retroactive tax increases on an already groaning middle class. But as PM, he has had to deal with the worst recession the world has seen since the 1920s. Even so, because of his success as Chancellor, he is seen by many as the only man who can get Britain out of the depression as quickly and with as little long-term damage as possible.
When Brown arrived in Downing Street in 1997 as Blair’s next-door neighbour, he was seen as the PM’s older, only pal. A brooding Scotsman with dishevelled hair and crumpled suits—a dour image useful for a chancellor but not for leading a party to the polls. However, over the last decade and a bit, he has transformed into a happy family man. A known workaholic, Brown’s devotion to duty was underlined by a comment from his former girlfriend Princess Marguerite of Romania, who said a relationship with Brown was “politics, politics and politics”.
A bachelor well into his 40s, Brown had to contend with rumours that he was gay, which he finally quashed in 2000 by marrying PR executive Sarah Macaulay. In contrast with the flashy Blairs, the Browns were a low-key couple. On 28 December 2001, the couple became parents with the premature birth of Jennifer Jane. Overnight, Brown’s serious exterior was replaced by big smiles and joy as he told the world his daughter was the “most beautiful in the world”. But tragedy struck just ten days later when the little girl suffered a brain haemorrhage and lost her fight for life in her parents’ arms at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. The image of a heartbroken chancellor, who described Jennifer as an “inspiration”, touched the nation. That meant the Browns’ joy was felt all the more widely when in October 2003, the couple had a son, John.
Despite the fact that Brown is now pushing 60, Sarah has tried to use her PR skills to make him look less staid and more in tune with young Britain. He looks a lot better turned out now. Sarah has changed his wardrobe to include causal chinos and open-necked shirts to pit him against the handsome Cameron, who is at least a decade younger.
The Camerons are like the Blairs of the Conservative Party. Tanned and toned, David and Samantha are chic, hip and know how to work the media. Allowing the cameras into their home, following them as they prepare the kids for school and work around the house, the Camerons project the image of a perfectly balanced middle-class, English family. However both Cameron and his wife are true-blue Tories from privileged backgrounds. Cameron went to Eton, the boarding school for conservatives, while Samantha is the daughter of a knight of the realm. Her barefoot, slightly bohemian lifestyle reflects her attempts to rebel against her upbringing. The Camerons are willing to live life in the spotlight. They talked openly about their severely disabled eldest son, six-year-old Ivan, who died recently, bringing barrels of sympathy.
The Camerons have been criticised for using the family for political leverage—unlike the Browns, whose youngest son Fraser suffers from cystic fibrosis, but have decided to keep his disability private. “My family is very important and I’m asking people to do a big thing and make me PM, and they have a right to look at you and what you’re like,” says Cameron in his defence.
True, Cameron has an easy charm, especially with young voters, that has given the Tories the makeover that Blair once gave Labour. As one commentator put it, “Cameron is a digital politician for a digital age.” He is a green cyclist, wants people to hug hoodies and isn’t homophobic. Thus ‘Dave’ uses teenage lingo like ‘whatever’ even when addressing an audience of ancient tweedy Tories. He knows his Killers songs and doesn’t refer to Shakespeare and Byron in his speeches but to popular TV shows and films. Importantly, he is getting the Tories, if not yet loved, at least listened to by an electorate that plugged its ears when William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard spoke of lower taxes, tighter immigration laws and being tough on criminals. As the Sunday Telegraph put it, ‘Inch by inch, he is dragging his party into the warm sunshine of credibility’.
Cameron is a showman, daring his rival to a TV debate. Brown ignored the challenge, claiming it was not the British way. Despite their differing styles, what they share is the killer instinct for power. Brown remains a master of the political arts, inspiring a measure of fear in most colleagues. Taking him on directly within the party, its members acknowledge, is something of a suicide mission. “The respect has gone,” says a cabinet colleague, “But not the fear.” Whatever his shortcomings, Brown is unquestionably tough as a politician.
Cameron too has fire in his belly to get to the top. Some experts feel Brown has had his chance as PM, Cameron should now be given a shot at the hot seat too. It’s the sort of logic that swing voters often abide by. But come election, personalities will matter more than they’re supposed to in parliamentary democracies. There’s a reason. They’re both so hard to ignore.