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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Brown and Martin were in the same sinking boat Add to ...

Gordon Brown and Paul Martin were colleagues and friends as finance ministers of Britain and Canada.

They were both effective at their jobs, and hungered to be their countries' prime minister. They both achieved their ultimate ambition, but failed at the top job.

They failed in the cruel world of partisan politics because they couldn't win a majority government, so they had to resign, Mr. Brown having done so Tuesday.

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Whatever the personal strengths and weaknesses of the two men, they inherited political hands that superficially looked strong but were underpinned by weakness, the most obvious being the hardest to confront. Time-for-a-change is one of those imprecise feelings that begins to grow in democratic societies after a while, sometimes imperceptibly and often slowly, but it can gather a momentum almost impossible to stop.

When a leader takes over a party already long in power - as Mr. Brown did following Tony Blair and as Mr. Martin did from Jean Chrétien - the newcomers want to present themselves as artists of change. It's not easy to do if a party has been in office for a long time and if the new leader had been an integral part of the previous governments. And what, apart from being prime minister, could be more integral to a government than having been finance minister?

In trying to be the agent of change, the new leader risks shunting aside elements of his party loyal to the old leader, thereby creating sore feelings. If the new person keeps too many of the old ministers, he doesn't look like an agent of change; if he jettisons too many, he risks splitting the party.

There will always be comparisons, few of them complimentary. Mr. Brown lacked Mr. Blair's charm; Mr. Martin lacked Mr. Chrétien's folksiness and political cunning. Mr. Brown and Mr. Martin did not have that alchemic ingredient called political instinct that any prime minister needs, since unlike a finance minister, who makes his reputation at budget time, a prime minister must make constant decisions, large and small. Ultimately, a prime minister needs an intuitive feel of what the country wants and needs, and how to marry his convictions to those wants and needs.

Maybe it was a matter of timing; maybe it was a matter of weak political instincts; maybe it was just the challenge of time-for-a-change. Neither man could get on their countries' wavelength enough to win a majority.

Both men had chafed working under their prime ministers. Aides of both leaked and spun damaging interpretations of the leadership style of the prime ministers. In turn, their ambitions irritated, even infuriated, the prime ministers they were ostensibly serving.

Both were done in by political scandals: Mr. Martin by the sponsorship scandal, Mr. Brown by revelations about excessive expenses by many British MPs. The leaders didn't create these scandals, but they carried the can for them. The scandals deepened the public sense that it was time to give a new crowd a chance.

The Liberal Party has not yet recovered from Mr. Martin's defeat, having tried two leaders since his departure. It remains to be seen whether the Labour Party under a new leader will return to power any time soon. Chances are that Labour, like the Liberals in Canada, will be in opposition for quite a while, until that time-for-a-change sentiment begins growing.

Canadian Liberals and British Labour remained strong enough, even in defeat, to prevent their adversaries from winning an outright majority. Third parties helped in frustrating the search for a majority, especially the Bloc Québécois in Canada and the Liberal Democrats in Britain.

Therefore, Conservatives in both countries won minority governments under leaders in their 40s, although Britain's David Cameron has entered a formal coalition with the Lib Dems to form a government, whereas Stephen Harper has governed month by month without any formal arrangement with another party.

Mr. Harper inherited a fat surplus and a declining national debt, courtesy of the Chrétien-Martin governments. Governing with such a surplus, he proceeded to cut taxes, spend well above inflation, hand billions of dollars to the provinces and reduce the debt.

Mr. Cameron should be so lucky. He inherits a terrible fiscal deficit and a sputtering economy. Good luck to him.

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