Britain's perfect political storm


IT IS a perfect political storm for British prime minister Gordon Brown over the next four days. Facing a dramatic wipeout in today’s UK local and European elections, he must also rescue his disintegrating government with a reshuffle forced on him by the resignation of two full cabinet ministers as a result of the continuing expenses scandal. A false move could easily trigger a dismissed minister into supporting rebel MPs who already want him to go. As his political authority and party discipline collapse it is difficult to see how he can survive any such a move against him. That could see a new Labour leader installed within a month and a likely British general election in the autumn.

Labour now trails behind the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and even the Europhobe United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) in the opinion polls. Mr Brown shows no intention to go willingly. He still hopes to survive this further threat to his position so he can demonstrate his skills of economic management over the autumn, making him more attractive in a spring election next year.

It looks an increasingly forlorn hope. More and more Labour MPs are convinced they cannot win with Mr Brown, but they are less sure any alternative leader could regain the ground he has lost. The one exception is health minister Alan Johnson, who could rally Labour members and voters back to the fold, and even mount a credible challenge to the now seemingly inevitable Conservative victory at the next election. But up to now he has resisted any effort to recruit him.

If he does agree to challenge Mr Brown and succeeds, a general election becomes highly likely sooner rather than later. A media empowered by the extraordinary Daily Telegraph expenses story, emboldened by a disastrous Labour vote, and mindful that Mr Brown himself became prime minister without a direct electoral mandate, could demand an election and probably get its way with the support of all opposition parties. That would give precious little time for any political or economic recovery, but British voters would welcome the opportunity to make a final judgment on Labour’s three terms in office.

An autumn general election in the UK would have important implications for Ireland and the European Union because of the latest twists in the Conservative policies on the Lisbon Treaty. Its leader David Cameron has tabled a Bill proposing a referendum on the treaty on the same day as Ireland’s expected one. He has pulled the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament and will join the group linked to Polish, Czech and French Eurosceptics. This is partly to head off Ukip’s appeal to Tory voters. The real thrust of Conservative policy on Europe is quite unclear between a nationalistic rejection of Lisbon and a realistic acceptance of it if other states ratify.

One way or another, Ireland’s decision on Lisbon this autumn is likely to become closely entangled with – even a pawn in – the UK’s domestic politics. Irish voters should bear this in mind when they go to the polls tomorrow.