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Britain’s No-Win Election?

LONDON – With Labour trailing the Conservatives slightly in opinion polls, the British election on May 6 could well produce a “hung” parliament, in which neither major party obtains a majority and the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power. Depending on which party wins more seats, either Labour’s Gordon Brown or the Conservatives’ David Cameron will become prime minister with the Liberal Democrats’ support.

The surprise is that the Conservatives are not polling far ahead of Labour. After 13 years in power, Labour started the election with a huge disadvantage: the legacy of Tony Blair. From being Labour’s most potent asset in 1997, Blair turned into the party’s greatest liability after the Iraq war, and had to be practically forced out in 2006.

His successor, Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Gordon Brown, was well described by Blair as “clunking.” A man of charm and humor in private life, he is relentlessly dour in public. In Britain’s first ever “presidential” television debate the youthful Nick Clegg stole the show for the Liberal Democrats with his freshness and directness. David Cameron was polished but vague, and the jowly Brown came across as gun loaded with statistics.

But the statistics were not as good as they should have been. Brown’s reputation for fiscal prudence evaporated with the Great Recession.