Likely Blair successor has popularity problem

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and finance chief Gordon Brown at the annual Labour Party conference September 25, 2006.

KAI RYSSDAL: There are a lot of reasons Tony Blair's on the way out as the British Prime Minister. He's been in power for nine years. He's spent most of his political capital supporting the U.S. in Iraq. And he's getting a not-so-subtle shove out the door from members of his own party. Labor holds its annual conference this week in Manchester, trying to pick a new leader of the party. Now that he's going, people are saying all kinds of nice things about Tony Blair. But, Marketplace's Stephen Beard reports, they're not saying the same about his presumed successor.


STEPHEN BEARD: The Prime Minister refuses to give a date for his departure. All he will say is that this is his last annual party conference. At the opening session, the party chairwoman Hazel Blears began the long goodbye to Tony Blair:
HAZEL BLEARS: He's been a great leader for our country and an inspiration to our party. And we thank him.

That applause belies the recent vicious infighting within the party, and the calls for Tony Blair to quit soon. His likely replacement, the Finance Chief Gordon Brown, today tried to hold himself above the fray:

GORDON BROWN: Tony is still leader of the Labor Party. There is no leadership election at this stage. There is no date. He says he will give a date at some future time. Look, I'm not going to get into this speculation.

Brown has been chafing to take over the leadership virtually since the Labor Party won office nine years ago. But achieving it now that Tony Blair is on the way out might not be easy, even for a man hailed in some quarters as Britain's most brilliant and successful Finance Chief ever. The problem is, says Andrew Hilton of the CSFI think-tank, the British people just don't like him.

ANDREW HILTON: Brown is a sort of dark, brooding, saturnine figure. He is the, if you like, Anti-Blair. Blair is sunny. Brown is dark, brooding, negative. Somebody that is much harder to warm to than the Prime Minister.

Gordon Brown is certainly not what you'd call a man of the people. His love of complex and often baffling jargon won't win many votes.

BROWN: The growth of post neo-classical endogenous growth theory, and the symbiotic relationships that people now understand between growth and investment in people and infrastructure.

But, hey, who needs charisma when the British economy is booming, when unemployment is low, and living standards are rising? You'd expect the voters to forgive Gordon Brown for lacking the common touch. The trouble is, says Derek Scott, a former government adviser, the people don't give Brown the credit for the buoyant economy:

DEREK SCOTT: The problem is that it's always a bit difficult to disentangle the impact of policy from what is going on anyway. And actually the British economy has been performing very well since 1992.

That's five years before Labor came to power. Andrew Hilton says the people are right not to regard Brown as the main architect of Britain's economic revival:

HILTON: The Labor government when it came to power inherited an economy that was improving rapidly as a result of Mrs. Thatcher's reforms and they've benefited from that.

He argues that it was Thatcher curbing trade union power and privatising state-owned assets that reversed Britain's decline. But anyway, he says, the British people have had a buoyant economy for so long, they now take it for granted.

They want color and charisma in their political leaders. Even Tony Blair, battered by Iraq and besmirched by campaign finance scandals, is ahead of Gordon Brown in the opinion polls.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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