POLITICS MARCH 15, 2010
LONDON -- Could Prime Minister Gordon Brown become the Harry Truman of British politics?
For many long months, Brown and his Labor Party were written off as sure losers in this year's election, likely to be called for May 6. David Cameron, the young, energetic and empathetic Conservative Party leader, was all but handed Brown's job by the chattering classes, so consistent and formidable had been his lead in the polls.
But suddenly, Cameron doesn't seem quite so inevitable. One recent poll showed Brown's party within two points of Cameron's. While other surveys show a larger Conservative lead, it is no longer an absurd idea that Brown could push his way into an unexpected new term in office. Truman won the world's most famous upset over Tom Dewey in 1948. A Brown triumph this year would be of a comparable magnitude.
Just to complicate matters further, there is another possibility: that neither major party would win an outright majority. This would create a hung Parliament in which the Liberal Democrats, a middle-of-the-road progressive party, would hold the balance of power.
The leader of the Lib Dems, Nick Clegg, has been coy as to whom his party would back for prime minister, and for good reason: To get into the kingmaker role, his party needs to beat the Conservatives in some parliamentary contests and Labor in others. While an alliance with Labor would seem more natural, Clegg cannot afford to alienate potential allies on the near right, so he keeps his options open.
How has Brown engineered his comeback? For starters, it's been hard for the 43-year-old Cameron to maintain his spiffy image as the next new thing, given that he has now been the Conservative Party leader since December 2005. "Imagine campaigning the way you would in the United States for four years," said James Purnell, a retiring Labor member of Parliament who has been an internal critic of Brown's.
Cameron has also had to engage in an intricate balancing act on policy, and he has lately wobbled on the high wire. Cameron has tried to emphasize that his new Conservatives are not hostile to public services, that they are now a tolerant and compassionate party. By voting for the Tories, the country could give itself new leadership without taking a big risk. "Vote for Change" is the Conservatives' all-encompassing slogan.
Yet in light of large government deficits, his party has also said that substantial cuts in public expenditure will indeed be necessary. Brown pounced on this, and Cameron has been trying to clean up the inconsistency between his party's promise of an easy, sunny future and its dour pronouncements on spending.
Purnell, who despite his dissidence is supporting Brown, said in an interview that the Conservatives are suffering from "not having worked out their policy," partly because Cameron's emphasis has been more on improving "communications" than on working out an alternative approach to governing.
Brown, in the meantime, has finally found a role he seems to enjoy: that of the seasoned fighter coming from behind. Voters may not be wild about him, Brown tacitly admits, but "with me, what you see is what you get." With Cameron, his argument goes, they can't be sure what they'll be buying.
The prime minister -- take note, Barack Obama -- is also casting himself as a leader who got Britain through a very dangerous economic time. Character, he said in a speech last week, is about "the courage to take the tough decisions and stick to them without being blown off course."
He's also carefully picking out groups who might put his party over the top. Brown's latest targets (remember America's "soccer mom" craze of the 1990s?) are "middle-class mainstream mums," whom he says would be hurt by Conservative spending cuts.
One other potential Brown advantage: Because Cameron will rack up huge majorities in core Conservative districts, his party could emerge with a plurality of the popular vote and still not win a majority in Parliament.
Britain's bookies, often better electoral prognosticators than the pollsters, are not yet convinced by the Brown comeback story and they still give decent odds to Cameron. For his part, the Conservative leader has reason to count on public exhaustion with Brown, and also with a Labor Party that has held power for 13 years.
So, yes, an outright win by Brown still seems a long shot. But then Harry Truman was supposed to lose, too.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com. (c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group