Tough Times for Britain's Prime Minister

If you think that U.S. politics is rough, spare a thought for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is virtually being mugged — not just by the usual opposition gang in Parliament but by his own Labour Party supporters as well.

A YouGov poll conducted earlier this week and published in the Sun newspaper has put Labour at 23 percent with the opposition Conservative Party at 49 percent.

Many of those defections came from Brown's own party. "He's done nothing for us working people to make us secure or keep us safe," David Kernaghan, 38, a carpenter and lifetime Labour voter, told ABC News. "He's doing nothing to combat crime or rising house prices."

It is Labour's worst rating since opinion polls were first published in the 1930s. And the Times newspaper of London published its own poll showing that more than half of Labour voters want to show him the door.

If new elections were held today it would not just be a landslide; it would be a tsunami that would wash the once-popular and confident prime minister into the treetops. It is a serious reversal of fortunes from eight months ago, when Labour support stood at 43 percent and the Conservatives were at 32 percent.

What happened? Brown used to be Mr. Money, Doctor Right and the Crown Prince of Labour all rolled into one. But those were the days when, as chancellor of the exchequer who presided over Britain's Treasury Department, he was understudy and heir apparent to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. Brown looked like a golden boy along side Blair, who had grown deeply unpopular for his support of Bush's war in Iraq. And the British economy, like the world economy, was doing well, so Brown looked like a safe pair of hands to British taxpayers.

"Brown looked at Blair and said to himself 'how hard could that be.' Well, it is very hard," Simon Hoggart, political writer for London's Guardian newspaper, told ABC News.

Yet there seemed to be an inevitability and sense of destiny about Brown's ascension to 10 Downing Street last year without so much as a vote being cast for him by the general public. For the entire decade of the Blair government, there had been a running commentary on a legendary, Blair and Brown say mythical, secret deal struck between them over lunch when both were competing for Labour leadership. Blair is reputed to have said, in essence: "Look Gordon, I've got the party votes to be leader if you don't make trouble, and I help overthrow the Tories and get us voted into power. So, Gordon, I'll be prime minister for one five-year term while you run the Treasury. Then I'll step down just before a second election and you can take over and take Labour into the second election as prime minister."

Well, hardly ever has a lunch been chewed over so many times. Neither Blair nor Brown ever publicly confirmed what was said over lunch. But Brown's close supporters have always spun against Blair as a traitor for not stepping aside, instead running for, and winning, a second and a third term. It was only after being worn down by low opinion polls that Blair finally gifted Brown with the job of prime minister.

It is worth noting that in Britain you don't have to go to the public to be chosen prime minister. As long as your political party is in power, all you need is the support of the majority of you party's members of Parliament. So when prime minister Blair resigned, the Labour Party, with no one else groomed, had little choice but to choose Brown as new prime minister.

So far, so good for Brown. But things quickly went down hill. He publicly toyed with the idea of calling a flash election. That's what British government officials do when they think they can win one now, but maybe not later. But he dithered, and dithered. Finally, Brown backed down from a showdown with the Conservatives, and lost face big time.

The next major debacle came with the collapse, then government rescue, of Northern Rock, Britain's fifth-largest mortgage lender, which went bankrupt amid the global credit crisis. The Brown government was widely criticized for not acting decisively enough, soon enough. And if the prime minister thought he could dodge that political bullet because he is no longer in charge of the Treasury, he was wrong. Brown was criticized by the influential Economist magazine with this broadside: "As chancellor, he introduced a badly designed regulation system, with the result that nobody was really in charge of overseeing the banks when the credit crunch hit."

But what stings even more, and hurts at the polls, is the widespread unhappiness among Labourites. "He's an idiot for letting our economy run into the ground," Marcus Newton, 32, a furniture fitter and Labour voter, told ABC News.

Then there is the Brown chemistry and political character, or, as many commentators believe, the lack of both. It may be grossly unfair, but Brown suffers a severe image problem. He is frequently referred to in the media as dour, boring and awkward during the kind of public appearances at which Blair seems to flourish with ease.

"He's got no gumption; he's willy-nilly, " carpenter Kernaghan said.

The other media indictments against him include indecisiveness and lack of commitment. When faced with a civil war within his own party over his elimination of a tax break for poor Britons, Brown, who said he would not retreat, retreated.

But Brown seemed to be trying to swim in quicksand. The more he tried to explain himself and his changing policies based, he said, on listening to people's objections, the deeper he sank.

On May 1, Britain held local elections for hundreds of city council seats and mayors. It was a disaster for the Labour Party, and for Brown. Labour lost its majority grip on neighborhood power across the nation, and the Conservative Party emerged the big winners. Brown blamed much of the Labour knockout on "difficult economic circumstances and claimed that measures he had put into place would become clear "over the next few months."

The Guardian's Hoggart said, "If the economy recovers by 2010, he could hang in there and win. But if we are in a recession, Brown is gone."

In the meantime, the opposition Conservative Party Chairman David Cameron has become the darling of the media. Brown has become the underdog, a strange role for the leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world. Most analysts at this point say that Brown is likely to keep his job, for now. But the Labour members of Parliament who last year gave him the green light may look for a replacement if it becomes apparent that they could lose their own jobs in the next election by clinging to Brown.