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Will Economic Crisis, Scandals Topple British Prime Minister?

Prime Minister Gordon Brown
(RFE/RL) -- Ever since he took over for Tony Blair two years ago, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown has had a roller-coaster ride with British public opinion.

Brown is widely acknowledged to be one of the country's foremost economic experts after serving for 10 years as Blair's chancellor of the exchequer before becoming prime minister

But as a top leader, Brown sometimes appears to lack the media polish the public expects. And now, as he tries to balance two crises at once, his government appears in serious danger of collapsing.

Brown's first crisis is Britain's ongoing recession.

Britons widely welcomed him as the right man at the right time when the world economic crisis turned into a deep recession late last year.

But since then, despite heavy government spending to stimulate the economy and aid to the banking sector, the recession has shown no signs of going away.

The government predicts Britain's economy will contract by 3.5 percent this year before showing positive growth again next year. It hopes the economy will expand by 1.25 percent in 2010 and 3.5 percent in 2011.

Given that disappointing economic situation, perhaps it is not surprising that Brown has become particularly vulnerable to criticism of his leadership. And it is a second crisis that is now providing his greatest test since he took power.

The crisis is over Parliament members' (MPs) free spending of their government-provided expense accounts. The accounts are sums of money separate from their salaries that MPs are entitled to use to cover expenses associated with their work, such as travel costs.

But for weeks now Britain has seen revelation after revelation that many MPs used their expense accounts to pay for purely personal pleasures. And those pleasures have included everything from buying large-screen TVs to repairing home swimming pools to even purchasing pornography.

The legislators are from both Brown's ruling Labour Party and the opposition Conservatives. But it is Brown, as the top political leader in the country, who has become the target of the public's ire at a time when ordinary people have trouble paying simple bills.

Brown has repeatedly vowed to restore order. But amid the multiple crises, his to-do list seems only to grow longer.

"We've got to clean up the electoral system and we're doing that, we're cleaning up the expenses system," he said on June 3. "The second thing we're doing is cleaning up the economy and making sure that the economy comes out of recession."

Growing Pressure

Over the past 72 hours, three ministers have resigned from Brown's cabinet in what now is a spiraling test of Brown's ability to restore public confidence in the political system.

Two of the ministers are implicated in the expense-account scandal themselves and are believed to have resigned to avoid being dismissed by the embattled prime minister.

But the third minister, who resigned on June 4, is not suspected of any wrongdoing and left calling for Brown to resign for the good of the Labour Party.

The minister, Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell, is a rising star himself in the Labour Party and appears to represent a growing number of party members who now see Brown as a liability.

News reports say that up to 75 Labour MPs -- around a fifth of the total -- were ready to sign a letter calling on Brown to go, even before Purnell's announcement.

The crisis has emboldened the leader of the rival Conservative Party, David Cameron, to declare Brown all but politically dead.

Brown "told us he had the right team to take the country forward. That team is now deserting him, the government is collapsing before our eyes," Cameron said on June 3.

"Why doesn't he take the one act of authority left to him, get down to the [Buckingham] Palace, ask for a dissolution [of Parliament], call [a parliamentary] election?"

But Brown, who has a reputation as a fierce fighter when pressure grows, has shown no signs of yielding. On June 4 he sent messages through aides to leading British media figures saying there is "no chance" he will resign.

That leaves the immediate future unclear.

With his rivals calling for early elections and Brown rejecting such calls, everything now depends on whether the prime minister can rally support by appearing as a strong leader.

He is expected to try to do that by reshuffling his cabinet in addition to replacing his missing three ministers.

And Brown -- like elected leaders everywhere these days -- will pin his hopes for survival upon the global recession easing before his political crisis worsens. He is expected to argue that not changing governments now is a matter of Britain's national interest.

But until Britain's economy does actually recover, Brown's opponents can just as easily argue that changing the country's government -- particularly when it is itself in crisis -- is indispensable.