The Daily Star
Tuesday 22 April 2008
Despite appearances to the contrary, the knives are not quite out yet for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. They are certainly being sharpened. But no one is willing to step forward and wield the blade, even though critics within government who behind closed doors had accused him of being neurotic and paranoid are starting to emerge into the open.
Last week Labor peer Lord Desai opined that "Gordon Brown was put on earth to remind people how good Tony Blair was." He insisted Brown was "indecisive" and "weak" and that Labor parliamentarians were actively considering who should succeed him as leader.
Desai is a peripheral figure in Labor politics. But Brown's acolytes are also starting to speak out. Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, a member of Brown's trusted inner circle, stunned Westminster by conceding the government needed to "sharpen up" and give a "clear message" about what it was doing. Brown has been partly damaged by the impact of the global credit crunch on the United Kingdom. But it is the lack of direction of his government and his indecision when faced with big issues - epitomized by his allowing election speculation to mount last year - that is causing concern among Labor parliamentarians.
Iraq and Afghanistan are also contributing to Brown's woes, although arguably the ineptitude of his defense secretary, Des Browne, serves as a useful lightning conductor for the prime minister. A fortnight ago the High Court rejected Browne's attempt to prevent coroners' courts from criticizing the government for servicemen's deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. The court ruled that families of soldiers killed in action could even sue the government under human rights laws.
And last week it emerged that Browne had misled Parliament over the fiasco last year when 15 British sailors were taken hostage by Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf. Browne had insisted that the sailors were seized in Iraqi waters, but government documents now reveal that they were in fact located in disputed territory.
The government could conceivably withstand all these embarrassments were it not for the fact that British policy toward Iraq, indeed like most things at home as well, is drifting along in much the same confused manner as were the 15 sailors. The confusion, or ineptitude, was apparent again when the prime minister recently traveled to Washington, only to find himself eclipsed by Pope Benedict's visit to the city.
Although the rapport between US President George W. Bush and Brown was warmer than during Brown's visit last year, Bush still doubts the prime minister's commitment to the war in Iraq. Bush will soon be gone, but Brown is also viewed with suspicion in Baghdad where his desire to escalate the withdrawal of British troops, begun by Blair, spooked the perennially fragile Iraqi government.
The Iraqi pullout, which would have reduced British forces from 4,000 to 2,500 this year, has now been abandoned because of the fighting in Basra. But until this past weekend, British forces were embarrassingly restricted to providing air cover and medical aid in the battle between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government and Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army. One can argue there is little point in having troops in Basra if they are not going to fight when needed. But equally, if they are going to fight, then military sources insist the 4,000-strong force must be increased. On this, Brown remains silent, underlining for many his indecision when facing big issues.
Even Brown's much touted, and frankly turgid, speech on foreign policy in Boston last week failed to provide any clues on where he stands. Brown reiterated Blair's vision of "liberal interventionism" outlined in Chicago in 1999 when NATO bombing was forcing Slobodan Milosevic to pull his Serb forces out of Kosovo. But while Blair's interventionism was based on a US-British alliance, Brown's, as stated in his speech, centers on working through global institutions like the United Nations. This is unlikely to chime any more with the next president of the United States than with Bush if US interests are threatened by, let's say, Iran. But lest we forget, five years ago Brown voted in Parliament to invade Iraq, despite a lack of UN support. Moreover, few would dispute that intervention in Kosovo was just, and that too was carried out without UN approval.
Brown's criticism of Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe in New York was a similar hypocrisy considering his willingness to be photographed alongside aggressive track-suited Chinese security guards in Downing Street when the Olympic torch came to London. The security guards are part of China's People's Armed Police, the force spearheading Beijing's brutal crackdown in Tibet. Moreover, China is a key supplier of arms to Zimbabwe. Small wonder people accuse Brown of lacking direction.
The tipping point for Brown may well come next month. The government is reconciled to a humiliating loss in upcoming local elections, but is also facing defeat in Parliament on two key government policies. Labor parliamentarians are expected to rebel against their government when Parliament votes on extending the time allowed to detain terrorism suspects without charge to 42 days. Another revolt will occur over plans to increase taxes on some of Britain's least well-paid workers, as Brown attempts to shore up the finances of his cash-strapped government.
Yet Brown is safe in his job. His most likely successor, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, refused to stand against him last year and is unlikely to rock the boat now. Moreover, Brown has waited a long time to get the reins of power in his hands. He will not relinquish them willingly and Labor cannot afford a bloody battle to oust another prime minister barely a year after allowing Brown to evict Blair. But while Brown will likely ride out this storm, he would do well to remember that just because you're paranoid, that doesn't mean people aren't out to get you.
Michael Glackin is a freelance journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star