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Washington diary: Only in Britain

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

A country turning on its government.

Gordon Brown (L) meets Barack Obama, 17 April 2008 (File picture)
As Mr Brown's fortunes wane, Mr Obama's rise has been noted in the UK

A leader so unpopular that no candidate from his party wants to have his scent on the campaign trail.

Rumours of regicide.

The sound of daggers being sharpened.

Demands for change rumbling the political foundations.

Sounds familiar?

Of course it does.

But I am not talking about the dying days of George W Bush, one of whose erstwhile and most loyal retainers - former press spokesman Scott McClellan - has now dished the dirt on his former boss, adding to an already impressive catalogue of woes.

No. I am talking about Britain, where I have just spent a week being ushered from literary festival to bookshop promoting my book on the US, Only in America.

But during last week's odyssey round the United Kingdom, the phrase "Only in Britain" kept coming to mind.

Knifed in the back

What a week it was!

The by-election in Crewe handed the opposition Tories a stunning victory and prised open the floodgates against Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

London taxi drivers want to know whether America is ready to elect a black president

Will this be remembered as the key milestone on the road to defeat after more than a decade of Labour power?

The question aired in varying degrees of bold print in the newspapers is not whether Gordon will go - but when.

The cabinet has rallied to his defence with the conviction of rodents on a sinking ship.

With every shrill protestation of loyalty you hear the mumbled murmurs of deceit.

No-one should be surprised - we have been here before.

Regicide is, after all, our speciality - just ask Lady Thatcher, John Major and, yes, even Tony Blair.

They were all knifed in the back or weakened by whispers.

However charismatic or "presidential" a prime minister has become, he or she is still chosen by the MPs of the ruling party rather than the electorate.

Tony Blair jumped before he was pushed; Lady Thatcher failed to heed the ides of March; and John Major told his fractious party to "put up or shut up ", only to be silenced by the voters.

Members of parliament are of course perfectly entitled to ditch their choice.

But if they ignore the mood of the public they do so at their peril.

Popular mandate

Adding insult to injury for the prime minister is the fact that the whole of Britain seems to be infatuated with another Gordon.

Jimmy Carter at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, 25 May 2008
Former President Carter was one of the speakers at the Hay festival

That is, the tousle-haired, expletive-loving celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay.

His pitted face stares out with the menace of carving knives from posters all over the country.

Love him or loathe him, at least this Gordon enjoys the popular mandate of TV ratings and book sales.

The other Gordon has no such comfort.

What the prime minister really lacks and now so desperately needs - and will probably never get - is a good, old-fashioned popular mandate delivered through the ballot box.

He almost swallowed his legendary fear of risks and lunged for one last October.

The fact that he did not has come to haunt him. He may well have missed his chance for good.

The contrast with America could not be greater.

Here three - or is it now two? - candidates are still fighting, grovelling and charming for every vote in every conceivable corner of this vast and fragmented political landscape.

You have to hand it to Hillary, John and Barack: they have been campaigning for over a year, spent umpteen millions, slept in hundreds of hotel beds, shaken tens of thousands of hands, remembered hundreds of names, jumped through rings of fire and aged visibly.

And they are still nowhere near the finishing line.

Their epic battle, leading to the general election in November, has captured the imagination of the world.

Searching questions

My plumber in Putney, south-west London, wanted to talk super-delegates rather than bathroom leaks.

The world seems once again prepared to give [America] the benefit of the doubt

London taxi-drivers want to know whether America is ready to elect a black president and at every literary event or book shop huddle I was met with undiluted enthusiasm for, interest in and knowledge of America's electoral process - the Brits are gripped.

The interest in the US election is not just explained by the historic firsts: a woman, an African-American and a former prisoner-of-war septuagenarian vying to lead the most powerful nation on earth.

The rest of the world also understands that the US in 2008 is tackling some soul-searching questions.

What kind of nation does it want to be?

What is the right balance between security and liberty in a world threatened by extremism and suicide bombers?

Is America an imperial democracy, a democratic empire or neither?

Does this country want to be respected, feared or adored?

These are the underlying questions of the campaign, which the rest of the world wants answered as much as Americans themselves.

Big impact

They explain why thousands of bookish Brits flocked to the literary festival at Hay-on-Wye on one of the wettest days in living memory.

They donned their wellies, sedated their children with hot chocolate and waded through muddy fields worthy of a re-enactment of the Battle of the Somme to listen to Gore Vidal, former President Jimmy Carter and a gaggle of journalists chew the fat over Uncle Sam.

Not so long ago, talk of America induced groans of despair more than quivers of excitement.

That has now changed.

The world seems once again prepared to give this country the benefit of the doubt.

The result will be minted in the cornfields of Iowa, the swamps of Louisiana or the mountains of Colorado.

But it will, let us face it, have some impact on all our lives.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News Americawhich airs every weekday at 0030 BST on BBC News and at 0000 BST (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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