Britain's prime minister spoke to a joint meeting of Congress today, pushing a plan to fix a financial crisis that partly developed on his watch—and hoping to save his own hide at the polls.
“It is his best—if not last—chance of winning the next election”—That’s how one Cabinet colleague describes British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s three-day visit to Washington, D.C., which started Monday with a White House meeting with President Obama and culminates in an address to a joint session of Congress (only the fifth British prime minister to be granted the honor).
So there you have it from inside his own government: Mr. Brown goes to Washington to save his skin, a Labour prime minister heading for apparently inevitable defeat in next year’s general election (according to the polls), hoping that a little stardust will rub off on to him from a Democratic president who has just won an election by a near-landslide.
Brown might be short of popular support but he does not want for self-regard.
When he was Chancellor of Exchequer (Treasury secretary), he used to lecture Europeans on how to run their economies (Europe’s leaders haven’t forgotten and have never liked him since). Only weeks ago, as prime minister in the House of Commons, he let slip how he thought his British banking bailout had helped “saved the world,” to hoots of derision from opposition backbenchers. Now he comes to D.C. to persuade the president to back his blueprint for stage two of his global mission.
By the low standards of Congress, his performance will be more than passable. He has thought of nothing else for days, with aides summoned at all hours of the day to help in the drafting.
He will pull out all the stops. In arguing the need for a coordinated worldwide approach to tackling the financial meltdown and subsequent global recession, Brown will compare the fight against the global recession to the allied struggle against fascism in Europe in the 1940s and against communism during the Cold War. He will dust off the old Anglo-American "special relationship" (about whose health the Brits always fret) and place it in the current context.
"There is no international partnership in recent history that has served the world better than the special relationship between Britain and the United States,” Brown wrote in yesterday’s Sunday Times (of London). “It is a relationship that has endured and flourished because it is based not simply on our shared history but on enduring values that bind us together.
"In the 1940s, it found its full force defeating fascism and building the post-war international order; in the Cold War era, we fought the growth of nuclear weapons and when the Berlin Wall fell we saw the end of communism.
“In this new century, since the horrors visited on America in 2001, we have worked in partnership to defeat terrorism... We must renew our work together once again. Rebuilding global financial stability is a global challenge."
Congress can expect more of this, though they should brace themselves: Brown is no Tony Blair when it comes to rhetoric. No doubt they will respond politely (they always do to foreign guests) and, by the low standards of Congress, his performance will be more than passable (he has thought of nothing else for days, with aides summoned at all hours of the day to help in the drafting).
Whether anybody will buy it is another matter: Even an internationalist-minded Democratic Congress is more worried about its own backyard than rebuilding global financial structures whose benefits, if any, would be well beyond the current election cycle.
Brown knows he has a mountain to climb. Undaunted, he wants to thrash out the details of a global economic-recovery plan with the president so that he has him onside for the G20 meeting of the world’s major economies he will host in London in April.
Brown likes grandstanding on the global stage: He thinks it will help his fortunes recover on the home front. "Gordon has bet the farm on the G20 succeeding,” says one of his aides “and that will not happen unless he properly gets the other countries bound in. The first and absolutely crucial step is getting America on side."
The stakes are high for him: He has pinned his political future to the success of a G20 economic-recovery plan, which might not even see the light of day (and even if it does, to which other world leaders are likely to pay no more than lip service). It will certainly not happen without the enthusiastic support of the Obama administration, and that is far from certain.
The British PM thinks in grandiose terms. He wants a new system of cooperation between regulators to oversee the global economy; he likes the thought of new international rules governing hedge funds and banks; he hates protectionism and wants everybody to swear to oppose it; and he wants a global stimulus plan to reduce the length and severity of the global recession.
All this he calls his “global new deal”—to some in America it might sound more dangerously like “one-world government” —in the hope that it will appeal to President Obama. And, though very different in character and temperament, they are to some extent ideological soul mates: Both believe in massive borrowing to fund unprecedented peacetime government spending to combat the recession; both believe in high taxes, especially for the rich, and in redistribution; they share common ground when it comes to global warming (renamed climate change on both sides of the Atlantic after a freezing cold winter); and, if President Obama is now regarded as a European-style social democrat by the American Right, then in Brown they will find the real McCoy.
But there the similarities end. Obama will be wary of Brown’s global grandstanding: The prime minister might need it, the president does not. Like Congress, Obama will worry less about global financial regulation and more about the impact his stimulus plan will have on a moribund US economy.
And, though Brown has good contacts with several prominent folks in the Obama administration (including Larry Summers) thanks to all the summers he’s spent on Cape Cod with Democratic policy wonks, Obama’s people will warn him that Brown is not entirely to be trusted when it comes to global gestures.
This is the man, after all, who once urged the IMF to sell off its gold reserves when the price was $275 an ounce (it is currently around $950) and who cost his country several billions of pounds when he sold off Britain’s. A few years back, he urged the G8 countries to rack up massive debt to give to Africa but to do it in a way that kept it off their balance sheets. “Enron for Africa” was how one commentator dubbed it (and nobody signed up for it).
Above all, it was on Brown’s watch as chancellor that Britain’s borrowing binge developed uncontrolled, along with a ballooning asset price bubble. Unlike Obama, who was not in power, Brown does not have clean hands when it comes to the current crisis. Yet, much to voters’ increased annoyance, he cannot bring himself to utter the merest mea culpa.
When President Obama said: "We have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter or the next election… all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day"... many on this side of the Atlantic thought he could have been talking about Gordon Brown.
The president and prime minister will get on well enough. They have enough in common not to fall out. But Obama will keep his distance when it comes to Brown’s grand global designs, however warm the mood music. Why bother anyway? Chances are, say many in London, Obama will be welcoming Prime Minister David Cameron to the White House in just over a year’s time anyway and Brown will be writing his memoirs.
Andrew Neil is a publisher and broadcaster working out of London, New York, Dubai, and the south of France. He is chairman and editor-in-chief of Press Holdings Media Group, publishers of The Spectator, Spectator Business, and Apollo.