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Gordon Brown tries to regain initiative

Gordon Brown is reeling.

Heralded by his predecessor Tony Blair as a "big, clunking fist," who would crush rivals with his political heft, lately the new leader has been flailing in the dark.

Efforts to regain the initiative after a humiliating backdown on calling an early election have flopped - and bad news just keeps piling up, from a string of policy debacles to growing signs of an economic slowdown.

"My instinct is he's in a lot of trouble," said Andrew Russell, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Manchester.

Events have been unkind since Brown took office in June after Blair resigned, with attempted terror attacks, widespread floods, animal disease outbreaks and the first run on a British bank in a century.

Brown had initially won high marks for statesmanlike handling of terror threat and natural disasters - setting him off on a political honeymoon.

But then came a monumental blunder that turned the tide against him: After fueling rampant speculation he would call an election to secure his own popular mandate, he lost his nerve and backed down as his opinion poll ratings dived.

"The edifice crumbled at that moment," Russell said. "It's tempting to see the credibility ebbing away from that moment."

Policy crises have been cascading ever since. Officials lost count of foreign workers in Britain, Brown announced troops already at home were soon to be withdrawn from Iraq and - in the most serious case - ministers said Monday that personal data, including bank details, on half the population were lost in the post.

The string of woes has exposed Brown's inability to fend off troublesome events with the elan of Blair - who won the epithet "Teflon Tony," for his knack for dodging blame.

A resurgent opposition has added pressure on Brown, with Conservative chief David Cameron emerging from his own troubled summer with smart new policy ideas and sharp lines of attack.

Cameron has consistently outsmarted Brown as they trade barbs in the circus-like atmosphere of the leader's weekly House of Commons questions session.

Brown should "show some broad shoulders, be the big man, take some responsibility," Cameron taunted Wednesday.

A restive public has also shown skepticism for Brown's government.

As government ministers urged savers not to withdraw deposits from ailing mortgage lender Northern Rock, lines snaked around town centers with investors eager to empty accounts.

Banks have fielded calls from anxious clients now worried over the loss of their personal data.

A ICM poll published Nov. 11 put Cameron's Tories on 45 percent ahead of Brown's Labour on 35 percent. ICM questioned 1001 people by telephone on Nov. 8-10. No margin of error was given, but in samples of a similar size it is plus or minus three points.

"There's a real fear that we are sleepwalking to a Tory government," said John McDonnell, a Labour lawmaker who attempted to run against Brown as leader. "People are looking for change."

After a new outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease - which affects cows and pigs - was confirmed Thursday at a government laboratory previously cleared to resume work, political opponents sounded exasperated.

"This government's credibility is rapidly falling apart," said opposition Conservative lawmaker Peter Ainsworth.

Brown has even been half-jokingly blamed for recent England soccer and rugby defeats, accused of jinxing teams when he watches in person. The leader "has not necessarily been the best of omens," his spokesman Michael Ellam acknowledged.

Brown's woes seemingly extend to the international stage too, where his chilly formality at a July summit with U.S. President George W. Bush seemed calculated to appease domestic critics of the Iraq war, but did little to impress Washington.

Seeking to soothe relations with the White House, Brown used a major speech last week to praise Bush's leadership on Middle East peace, hoping to secure London's place as the closest ally of the United States amid a charm offensive from France and Germany.

Meanwhile, energetic French president Nicolas Sarkozy has seemingly filled Blair's place on the global stage, elbowing Brown aside as Europe's figurehead ally with Washington.

His "NYPD" T-shirts, shades and ebullience have endeared him to Bush, who calls Sarkozy his "partner in peace."

Despite Brown's woes, McDonnell believes the party chief will fight the next national election, which must take place before mid-2010.

"There is a lack of confidence, a fragility, a real lack of morale," McDonnell said.

That fragility has reduced Brown's clunking fist to a quiver, claims Russell, who said the leader trembled with nerves during a recent debate on his legislative agenda.

"When Brown was under pressure, his wrist was shaking," he said. "He actually turned a great strength into quite a frailty."

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