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Prime Minister Gordon Brown: A Progress Report

(Soundbite of song "God Save The Queen")


From 10 Downing Street, to Wall Street, then on to the White House, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown arrived in New York last night for his second trip to the U.S. since taking office last summer. When former prime minister and Bush BFF friend Tony Blair resigned on June 27th, Gordon Brown was his, well, sobering replacement.


In fact, when Prime Minister Brown met with President Bush for the first time at Camp David last July, their interaction was described as, quote, "deliberately cool." The advance word is that when Brown meets Bush for the second time tomorrow here in the States, that may change. Here's the prime minister in an interview Monday on the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric."

(Soundbite of TV show "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric")

Ms. KATIE COURIC (Anchor, "CBS Evening News"): What would you like the American people to know about you?

Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (United Kingdom): That I am very pro-American, and I've always been so, and I feel America and Europe, and America and Britain in particular, because ours is a very special relationship, I feel that America and Britain can achieve so much in the next few years.

STEWART: Joining us from London is Andrew Miller. He is the British politics editor for The Economist. Hi, Andrew. How are you?


Mr. ANDREW MILLER (Politics Editor, The Economist): Not too bad. Good morning.

STEWART: So, what does Mr. Brown hope to accomplish with this trip to the States? What is his main goal?

Mr. MILLER: Well, I mean, a cynic might say that the prime minister is in such political trouble at home that he's traveling abroad to get a little respite from his domestic problems. But, I suppose he's trying to project an image at home as a statesman, something that he hasn't really quite managed to do, so far.

And he also, I'm sure, has a genuine interest in talking to the president about the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed, to members of the financial community about the global credit problems which are affecting Britain along with every other developed economy.

STEWART: All right. Let's break this down a little bit. The trouble at home for Mr. Brown. What's going on that's made him so unpopular of late?

Mr. MILLER: Well, it's very difficult to put your finger on one thing in particular, but it's true that when he became prime minister last summer, Gordon Brown enjoyed an incredible bounce in the opinion polls partly because he was a new leader, and leaders tend to enjoy those kinds of bounces.

Partly because he was very different to Tony Blair, as I think you implied in your introduction, and people seemed to like him. He then, last autumn, thought about having a general election. As you know, in Britain the prime minister more or less can decide when a general election is held. And in the end he didn't hold one. And that, actually, in retrospect turns out to have been a sort of catastrophic moment in his premiership.

After that, his ratings plummeted, and he was overtaken by a series of other sort of lesser calamities, a political funding scandal, for example, the forced nationalization of one of Britain's main mortgage lenders, a ministerial resignation and so on, which have seen a steady erosion in trust in his leadership, both in the public as a whole, but also within the ruling Labor Party, and even, apparently, inside his own government.

STEWART: And from what I can understand, the UK economy is not doing particularly well, one of the things he might be running away from. How is the man who saw the UK through some very, very good times, when he was working under Tony Blair, is now presiding over falling housing prices and rising inflation?

Mr. MILLER: Well, I think, to a certain extent, he's a victim of his own success in so far as Britons are now so used to good economic conditions and strong growth, rising house prices and so on, that any departure from that can seem actually much more disastrous than it really is. In fact, unlike the American economy, the British economy is still growing, although more slowly than it has during most of the last 10 years when Gordon Brown was finance minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, as it's known in Britain.

So, it's not as if it's a disastrous situation yet, but it's certainly not as rosy as it has been. And part of that he would argue is to do with global economic conditions, which he sometimes says, or probably won't being saying this week, originated in the American credit markets. And part of it, to a certain extent, is to do with the economic policies he pursued during his time as finance minister.

In particular, a tendency to borrow too much to spend money on health care and so on in Britain, which has left his government, so it's critics claim, in an awkward position with little room to maneuver to respond to the worsening economic conditions.

STEWART: So, what is he will want from Wall Street?

Mr. MILLER: Well, I suppose, like other world leaders, he's very concerned about liquidity in the markets, and wants to sort of find an international way to keep money flowing around the system, because the problem he has at home is that although interest rates are being cut as they have been in America, those benefits haven't been passed on to homeowners in Britain, people with mortgages, by the banks that have lent them the money.

And that's because the conditions for the banks are expensive. Even though the headline interest rates are coming down, they are still having problems getting hold of cash. So he is interested in keeping money flowing around the system. I suppose that's his principal objective in terms of economic policy on this visit.

STEWART: And of course, when he gets to the White House, he and President Bush will be talking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In September, 500 British troops started Gordon Brown's planned withdrawal from Basra, but then, of course, quite a bit of unrest, the violence there started to escalate. Where does that plan stand now? And where does Gordon Brown stand now on the UK's role in Iraq?

Mr. MILLER: Well, the troops, as you say, haven't left in the numbers that Gordon Brown hoped because of the worsening security situation in Basra. Now, Gordon Brown, I think, has said already during his visit to America that he supported the UK's role in Iraq, and it's supportive of the American-led intervention.

Although, he didn't say much about it at the time and since - before he became prime minister. In fact, he sort of tried subtly to distance himself from it, one might say, because the war became very, very unpopular in Britain. But he's in the situation now where he can't really bring those soldiers home at the moment despite the domestic pressures to do so.

And he said today that he is committed to, you know, he said that on his visit, to keeping them there, and indeed, Britain has even more troops in Afghanistan. That's where we have our largest overseas deployment at the moment, and he is, I think, probably more authentically and deeply committed to that intervention than he is to Iraq.

STEWART: Andrew Miller is the British politics editor for The Economist. Andrew, thank you so much.

Mr. MILLER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.