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British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the Labour Party conference at Brighton, England on Sept. 29, 2009. (CARL DE SOUZA/AFP)
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the Labour Party conference at Brighton, England on Sept. 29, 2009. (CARL DE SOUZA/AFP)

Doug Saunders

Brown campaigns against himself as British election looms Add to ...

The campaign of a lifetime began this week, pitting Gordon Brown, beleaguered British Prime Minister, against a fearsome new political opponent - Gordon Brown, reform-minded Labour Party candidate.

In a marathon-length televised speech to party members in the seaside town of Brighton Tuesday, Mr. Brown effectively launched a campaign for next year's election by unleashing a series of bold reformist promises, including abolishing the appointed House of Lords, introducing universal state child care and pledging to crack down on rowdy teens.

It was an audacious and desperate bid on the part of a leader who some polls say has fallen to third place in a country with only two well-known parties, especially since it took place amid calls from top Labour figures for Mr. Brown's resignation in the wake of a BBC interview that pressed Mr. Brown on unsubstantiated Internet rumours about prescription drug use.

Ostensibly, the Prime Minister, who took over from Tony Blair in 2005 and has never faced an election as party leader, is campaigning against youthful Conservative Leader David Cameron.

But the polls show that Mr. Brown's most serious enemy is himself.

Mr. Cameron's Conservatives are doing surprisingly poorly after he bungled his response to the economic crisis by becoming one of Europe's few major voices to oppose stimulus spending and instead call for tax cuts.

A poll Tuesday by London's Independent newspaper appeared to show that Labour could beat the Tories next year, albeit with a minority government, as long as Labour's candidate is someone other than Gordon Brown.

The result, in Brighton Tuesday, was that Mr. Brown became an opposition politician, railing against the failings of the previous government and promising change and choice. He promised to democratize the House of Lords - he and Mr. Blair promised the same thing in 1997 - and to abolish universal ID cards, one of his key policies since 2005.

And he pledged an aggressive crackdown on "antisocial behaviour," British code for rowdy teenagers and petty crime, a dramatic return to the tabloid-pleasing policies of Mr. Blair, who launched a dizzying array of initiatives aimed at reducing hooliganism and criminalizing bad attitudes.

Mr. Brown, who was a bitter enemy of Mr. Blair by the time they parted in 2005, had abandoned such policies.

The package proved enormously popular with Labour Party members, who seemed visibly emboldened by the new beginning and call to war. "It was the best political speech I have heard in my life," said Reg Jenkins, a Welsh delegate.

But the party's campaign veterans were openly expressing their doubts about the strategy. "There's this sort of filter between Gordon Brown and the public, and he just hasn't broken through that," said Lance Price, a former chief adviser to Mr. Blair.

Indeed, the Sun tabloid, Britain's largest-circulation paper with three million daily copies, declares on its front page Wednesday that it has ended the decade-long détente in which it supported the Labour Party: "Labour's lost it. And now it's lost us, too."

While he is the leader who oversaw dramatic improvements to the National Health Service and public education, Mr. Brown is now tarred with the economic meltdown - even if he has been the chief architect of global recovery - and with the faltering Afghanistan war, even if it wasn't his decision to join, and is possessed of a personal style and manner that often fails to warm the hearts of voters.

For the past several weeks, rumours have swirled that Mr. Brown might use the Brighton conference to step down and pass the baton to one of his younger, more popular ministers.

Those rumours intensified this weekend when he faced a humiliating interview with the BBC in which he was probed about his medical problems - he is blind in one eye and has trouble with the other - and allegations that he has had to make regular use of painkillers. The reports were swiftly denied.

But he appeared to be emboldened by a successful appearance at last week's Pittsburgh G20 conference: He is one of those leaders who shines in international settings, away from the crush and compromise of his own country's deep troubles.

So he returned to rally his troops with a paraphrase of Goethe: "Dream not small dreams," he proclaimed, "because they cannot change the world."

For one of Europe's few remaining left-wing leaders, anything short of a massive defeat is a large dream indeed.

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