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British PM Gordon Brown marks one year in office

world Updated: Jun 25, 2008 09:03 IST

AFP
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Gordon Brown marks one year as British prime minister on Friday but celebrations are unlikely after a torrid 12 months, as speculation continues about whether he can survive until the next election.

The Labour Party leader, 57, was initially lauded for his push for widespread constutitional reform and apparently cooling relations with the United States after the divisive Iraq war.

His approval ratings also shot up after his widely-praised measured response to crises including failed car bomb attacks, devastating floods and the return of foot and mouth disease to British farms early in his premiership.

But the former finance minister's reputation for sound economic management has since taken a damaging hit from from the near-collapse of the Northern Rock bank and his government's botched income tax reforms.

The whiff of "sleaze" that tainted his predecessor Tony Blair's administration returned with the emergence of a new party funding scandal.

The government also faced accusations of incompetence after the repeated loss of sensitive personal documents, including most recently intelligence files on Al-Qaeda and Iraq.

And bubbling under throughout was the European Union, with Brown accused of being lukewarm to the bloc's new reform treaty and of breaking his word to have a referendum on it.

All of which has been blamed for Labour's worst electoral defeat in local polls since the 1960s and the loss of the London mayoralty on May 1 plus a formerly safe seat at a by-election to the main opposition Conservative Party.

Brown limps into his second year as leader faced with another by-election defeat, with the resurgent Tories poised to retain the seat held until recently by new London mayor Boris Johnson in a vote Thursday.

The prime minister's supporters, especially his Cabinet, insist he is still the right man for the job, praising his integrity and serious-minded attempts at reform, blaming external factors for the government's dip in fortunes.

But critics, notably the Tories, blame Brown personally for Britain's economic slow-down, increased taxes, higher government borrowing, the rising cost of fuel, domestic energy and food and fall in the house prices.

Even an issue where opinion polls suggest Brown has majority public support -- controversial moves to increase pre-charge detention limits for terror suspects to 42 days -- has been lost in the negative atmosphere around him.

"He has shown himself to be dithering and incompetent -- arguably the worst prime minister in history," the Tories said in a critical analysis of Brown's first year in Downing Street called: "Do we want five more years of this?"

The criticisms also attack his character and what many observers say is his awkward public persona that some Labour colleagues have also said does nothing to help him communicate his vision for change.

Their line of attack -- increasingly vocal since Brown backed down from calling a widely-expected early general election in October last year to capitalise on his early popularity -- appears to be taking hold.

The centre-right Tories have been steadily stretching their lead since cutting Labour's 13-point advantage last September.

An ICM poll in The Guardian on Wednesday put backing for the Tories at 45 percent, up four percentage points compared to last month, while Labour was down two points at 25 percent.

The Guardian said the Conservatives' 20-point lead would give them a massive victory in a general election, comparable to Labour's 179-seat majority following the 1997 election, ushering in the first Tory government since 1997.

A BPIX/Mail on Sunday poll last weekend suggested that 85 percent of people feel Brown has performed worse than expected since taking over from Blair and that 53 percent wished, in hindsight, that Brown had not become leader.

Talk among political commentators -- and increasingly, some lawmakers -- is now whether Brown can hang on until the next general election, due before May 2010 at the latest, or whether a challenger will come to the fore.