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Page last updated at 11:23 GMT, Thursday, 21 May 2009 12:23 UK

Washington diary: Political mandates

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

We used to have so much in common on both sides of the Atlantic.

Barack Obama and Gordon Brown
Both the US and UK are facing tough economic situations

Disquiet about the Iraq War, disgust at bankers' excesses, distrust of the French, a love-hate relationship with Simon Cowell...

But recently, the US and the UK have been drifting in different directions.

I am not talking about policy disputes, or - Heaven forbid - the end of that very special relationship.

I am talking about the mental health of the body politic.

Political cannibalism

Both nations are grappling with the economic flu.

The United States has checked into a health farm. It has given up boozing. It is working out feverishly.

The results are by no means satisfying yet. The right side of the brain is prone to rebellion. There is growing restlessness on the left side that the right has been pampered. But broadly speaking, the public is in general agreement about where the country is heading.

Matt Frei in the BBC World News America studio
Westminster has been sticky with blood in recent weeks but devoid of any sport

Meanwhile, America watches the political cannibalism that seems to be consuming Britain with a combination of fascination, disgust and pity.

First of all, the recent scandal lives almost comically up to cliche. I am thinking of Members of Parliament claiming for moats and horse manure.

Then there is the fact that the last Speaker to be axed was Sir John Trevor in 1695, almost a century before the war of Independence. Yes, there is plenty of historical context in this scandal.

The political beheading of Michael Martin was a very British affair. It was done on the sly and his executioners turned round even as his head was lolling in the basket to congratulate him on a fabulous career in politics.

Americans used to love watching the rhetorical blood-sport of Prime Minister's Questions. They adored the concept of Her Majesty's loyal opposition.

As a country obsessed with bipartisanship, they envied the fact that the House of Commons could play host to regular bust-ups without anyone fretting that the kingdom was no longer united.

Brazen abuses

But things seem to have changed.

Westminster has been sticky with blood in recent weeks but devoid of any sport. The daggers are rarely sheathed. The abuse of expenses is unseemly. Its detail is petty.

Watching veteran MPs explain in flustered detail why they ticked which box on their claims forms is pitiful. The witch-hunt is also ugly. The political atmosphere has been poisoned. The public is understandably irate.

When thousands are losing their homes to foreclosure, some MPs have been caught "flipping" theirs to make a mint.

Prime Minister's Questions in the UK House of Commons
Americans enjoy watching proceedings in the House of Commons

Although some of the most brazen abuses have allegedly been committed by Tory MPs, it is the government that seems to be getting the brunt of the blame.

Gordon Brown looks ashen-faced. He seems to be wilting inside.

And it was only six weeks ago that he gathered the world's leaders at the G20 in London, the saviour host, helping to fix the global economy. That week now feels like ancient history.

The expenses abuse would have been a debilitating scandal under any prime minister. But what makes it all so much worse is what you might call the birth defect of the Brown administration: his own personal lack of a popular mandate to lead the country.

In 2005, the British electorate went to the polls and cast their ballot for a Labour Party still run by a man called Blair.

Switching leaders half way through a term rarely works, even in a parliamentary democracy, even when it does not come as a complete surprise.

David Cameron, the leader of the opposition, is calling relentlessly for fresh elections, while resting assured that they will probably never be granted. His own party might suffer in the current scandal.

But every time Mr Cameron makes the demand, another pint of blood drains away from the prime minister.

Lions and sheep

This is a problem Barack Obama does not have. He is not only the new guy on the block - he is the newly-elected guy. One thing he possesses without question is a popular mandate.

But there are signs that his wave is breaking. The liberals in his party and his own administration are unhappy that he has backtracked on military commissions in Guantanamo Bay and on releasing more pictures showing Americans abusing their prisoners.

The compromises of power are beginning to take their toll.

The Republicans have been on the war-path since Day One of the new administration.

But on Tuesday, while vultures at Westminster were circling around the Speaker, something remarkable happened in Washington.

Barack Obama, the former community organiser who once got Catholics and Southern Baptists to work together in the fractious South Side of Chicago managed to get car manufacturers and environmental reformers round the same bushes in the Rose Garden and agree on emissions cuts and higher fuel mileage standards.

It is as if the lions and the lambs were agreeing on the use of pasture.

Mr Obama could not have done that without a whopping political mandate.

Across the Atlantic, Mr Brown could not even get two MPs to agree on the price of a cup of tea in the House of Commons canteen.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).



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