LONDON (AFP) – Gordon Brown faces potentially his toughest week as British prime minister beginning on Monday, with key statements expected on Iraq and the economy plus criticism of his decision not to call an election this year. Gordon Brown faces potentially his toughest week as British prime minister beginning on Monday, with key statements expected on Iraq and the economy plus criticism of his decision not to call an election this year.
Accusations that he suffered a loss of nerve over calling an election after negative poll ratings at the weekend are bound to resurface when Brown faces the press at his monthly news conference at 1100 GMT Monday. The prime minister could then be in for a rocky ride as heads to the lower House of Commons to update lawmakers on British troop levels in southern Iraq at 1430 GMT.
Brown said on a visit to Baghdad last Tuesday that 1,000 British troops would be home by the end of the year, but 500 had already been announced, prompting claims of media manipulation for party political or electoral gain. Global security think tank the Oxford Research Group said in a report out Monday that the United States and its allies, including Britain, should rethink their policy on Iraq and Afghanistan as it had been a “disaster”.
On Tuesday, finance minister Alistair Darling will outline the government’s spending plans and pre-Budget report. Having those statements so early in the new parliamentary term had been interpreted as a sign that Brown wanted to clear the decks ahead of a general election for as early as November 1.
But it could spell more bad news after Darling told the Financial Times last week he expects to downgrade the Britain’s growth forecast for 2008, meaning less voter-friendly wealth and fewer tax receipts for the government coffers. Public sector workers are already threatening disruption because of below-inflation pay rises.
Members of the Communications Workers Union at the Royal Mail are meanwhile staging their second 48-hour strike on Monday. Looking ahead, Brown may yet face further woe if the global credit squeeze heralds a period of economic turbulence, impacting on the mountains of personal debt built up by Britons in the decade since his Labour Party came to power.
Darling again braced Britain for gloomy news Sunday, saying a slow-down in growth was “inevitable” but the country was “well-placed” to deal with it. “These are difficult times and they need a steady hand,” he told BBC television.
“We need to be cautious in relation to what we do, but I am confident that we will emerge through these problems and we will emerge through this with a strong economy.” All of the above is likely to resurface at 1100 GMT Wednesday, when Brown goes head-to-head with the main opposition Conservative leader David Cameron in parliament for the first time since lawmakers returned from their summer break.
Further ahead, Europe could also be thrown into the mix when Brown travels to the Portuguese capital Lisbon later this month to approve the text of the new constitutional treaty before signing it in Brussels in December. Brown has refused to hold a referendum on the issue, angering opposition parties and The Sun, Britain’s best-selling and predominantly eurosceptic daily newspaper, which has started a high-profile campaign for a popular vote.
The situation is a far cry from the end of September when Labour enjoyed a seemingly unassailable double-digit poll lead thanks to Brown’s handling of crises including failed car bombings, floods and foot and month disease.
The reverse follows what was widely regarded as a successful Tory conference last week with a set-piece speech from Cameron and headline-grabbing proposals for tax reform.