Image: Gordon Brown
Shaun Curry  /  AFP - Getty Images
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is facing intense pressure to step down — including an alleged "cyber coup" — in the wake of a expenses scandal that has led to resignations from his Cabinet and rocked the country's political scene.
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msnbc.com
updated 6/5/2009 1:14:39 AM ET 2009-06-05T05:14:39

It would be a bitter fate for a former wunderkind who ceded the top job to the Tony Blair for a decade: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown could be forced out just short of two years into the job he has long coveted, felled by the toxic combination of a scandal over lawmakers’ expenses, an economy in decline and a resurgent Conservative opposition.

Experts believe it's too early to say whether Brown, who only last fall was being lauded for his role in tackling the global financial crisis, can weather the storm. The results of Thursday's European Parliament run-off — as well as local elections deciding 2,300 seats on town and city councils — may well determine his future.

In power since 1997, Brown's Labour Party has borne the brunt of public outrage over a scandal involving lawmakers' expenses that has rumbled for weeks. Five government ministers have resigned since Tuesday and polls now suggest that support for the left-center party is at the lowest level since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party virtually exiled Labour into the political wilderness.

"Gordon Brown isn't dead in the water but there are people thinking about firing at his ship," said John Curtice, a politics professor at Glasgow's Strathclyde University.

"The party is in real electoral trouble with an unpopular leader about whom there are doubts about his ability to do the job," he added.

The disclosures over politicians’ taxpayer-funded expenses continue to dominate Britain's newspapers and have heightened infighting among Brown's colleagues, with many fearing they won't be re-elected if he remains in charge. Although politicians from all parties have been revealed as making dubious claims for living expenses, the ruling Labour Party has come in for the most criticism.

‘Cyber coup’?
The plot thickened Thursday amid reports of a looming "cyber coup" after an anonymous e-mail apparently being circulated among rebel Labour members of parliament claimed Brown can "best serve the country" by stepping down.

The Daily Express tabloid suggested Brown was "on the brink of being overthrown in an unprecedented Labour uprising" while the Daily Mail's coverage of the resignations featured the headline: "Rats desert sinking ship."

Even the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, which usually supports Labour, turned on Brown. An editorial claimed the prime minister had "no vision... no plan, no argument for the future and no support" and urged MPs to "cut him loose."

Confidence game
If the party is wiped off the political map in Thursday's elections, support for the secret e-mail campaign is likely to grow — potentially triggering a Cabinet revolt.

"In parliamentary politics, the crucial thing is to retain the confidence of your Cabinet," Curtice said.

"If you get 70 or 80 Labour MPs publicly asking him to go, Cabinet members will be forced to have conversations with each other."

One opinion poll Thursday suggested Labour could finish fourth in the battle for 72 seats at the European Parliament — behind the opposition Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and even the United Kingdom Independence Party, until now regarded as a libertarian fringe party devoted to removing Britain from the European Union.

Matthew Taylor, who served as Tony Blair's chief political strategy adviser when he was prime minister, said expectations were so low that Labour winning just 20 percent of the European votes could be portrayed as somewhat of a success. Such a result, along with a widely expected Cabinet reshuffle, could pave the way for Brown to unveil a series of bold reforms.

"Nobody knows how bad the election results will be," Taylor said. "It's clear to me that if Gordon stays he has a lot of stuff he wants to say. If he does survive, you'll see a blizzard of announcements and initiatives."

By law, Brown has to call an election by next June.

Resurgent opposition
The son of a Scottish church minister who was admitted to the University of Edinburgh at age 15, the somewhat dour Brown initially promised to a new era of politics based more around substance than froth.

Image: David Cameron
Toby Melville  /  Reuters
David Cameron, the 42-year-old millionaire who is leader of Britain's opposition Conservative party, has been described as "Tony Blair Mark II."

But analysts say he has struggled to communicate his message, particularly when compared to main rival David Cameron — or Brown's predecessor, Blair, who was a more compelling orator.

Cameron, the opposition Conservative Party leader, is a millionaire who previously worked in public relations. Now aged 42, he has revitalized the pro-business party by shifting its focus to issues such as the environment (he often bicycles to his office at the Westminster Parliament).

"Brown's problem is that he's an intellectual," Curtice said. "He tends to think of comprehensive solutions and likes to work things through, but that makes him look like a ditherer.

"David Cameron is your classic self-confident, Oxford-educated, upper-class person. Cameron is charismatic and holds people's attention."

Professor Steven Fielding, director of the Center for British Politics at Nottingham University, described Cameron as "Tony Blair Mark II."

"He's modeled himself on Blair so much that he might as well be a close cousin," he said.

An Ipsos MORI poll published Monday gave the Conservatives a 22-point lead over Labour, 40 percent to 18 percent.

"I think it's still more likely than not that Brown will lead Labour into the next general election," Fielding said. "He waited so long to become prime minister and if he gives this up he's never coming back."

Online smear
Brown's allies fear that voters will attempt to punish mainstream politicians at the ballot box Thursday by supporting fringe parties such as the far-right British National Party. It is led by a convicted Holocaust denier and its policies include sending immigrants back to the country of their birth.

And while Cameron continues to call for a snap election for the Westminster Parliament, Brown also has been wounded by friendly fire. John Prescott, who was deputy prime minister under Blair, last month mocked Brown for having the "worst smile in the world" after he appeared ill at ease while making a policy announcement on YouTube.

Brown's reputation also suffered when a right-wing blogger revealed that a close adviser had plotted an online smear campaign against Conservative opponents. And Labour's decision to introduce a 50 percent tax rate for people earning more than 150,000 pounds ($244,000) a year has also proved controversial.

Experts say the revival of Britain's struggling economy is the key to any potential comeback by Brown, who as chancellor was in charge of the country's finances during a decade of prosperity under Blair.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel-prize winning economist, last October wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times pondering whether Brown had "saved the world financial system"?

He concluded that "Gordon Brown and his officials are making sense. And they may have shown us the way through this crisis."

Curtice believes that persuading the British public to accept a similar assessment is Brown's best chance of turning around his flagging fortunes.

"The government has to hope that the economy comes out of recession relatively quickly," he added.

Depending on Thursday's election results, Curtice said it remains possible that Labour MPs will "panic in droves" and start publicly calling for Brown to quit. That could force Cabinet members to deliver a "you or us" ultimatum that may leave Brown with little choice but to leave 10 Downing Street.

"The crucial thing is whether or not there is going to be a Cabinet revolt," Curtice said.

Alan Johnson, who rose from mailman to union leader to Brown's health secretary, is widely seen as his most likely replacement in the short-term.

But publicly at least, Johnson seems reluctant to pick up the cudgel. He insisted Wednesday that "there's absolutely no one" more suited to running the country than Brown.

When asked by reporters if he was capable of doing a better job, Johnson replied: "No."

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