The plagues descend on Britain's PM

Don Murray on the Job-like woes of Britain's Gordon Brown.

There are many stories in the elections this past week to a European Parliament spanning 27 countries. The story of Job, or rather its modern equivalent, is one of them.

Britain's beleagured Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, knows the original. A Presbyterian — or "a dour Presbyterian," as the British newspapers like to present him — Brown grew up with the Bible. His father was a minister of the church.

Today, like Job in the biblical book that bears his name, Brown is suffering a series of plagues — a still dormant economy, a party revolt and, now, an electoral drubbing of the first order.

Bookmaker Robin Hutchison writes down the odds on the next Labour party leader on a blackboard outside the British Parliament in June 2009. (Sang Tan/Associated Press)

Like Job, who the Bible describes as "perfect and upright" and rich (he had 7,000 sheep and 3,000 camels), Brown was perfect and upright as Britain's finance minister for 10 years.

Under his stewardship, Britain's flocks of sheep and camels grew and grew. But like Job, Brown saw his flocks devastated.

Two years ago, Brown became prime minister, succeeding his former friend and boss, Tony Blair. Then came the camel crunch.

Britain's banks started dying. Brown worked heroically to try to save them but the plagues wouldn't stop. The infection hit the country's parliamentary sheep.

They were discovered to have been gorging themselves on MP expense accounts. Many fell, politically dead. Brown, upright and perfect like his Biblical predecessor, had eaten almost nothing of the tainted feed. But the plague was surely upon him.

Plague of resignations

Like Job, Brown had counsellors who offered well-meaning advice. Job's counsellors suggested he admit his sins and ask for forgiveness. Job refused. So did Brown. Job's counsellors became fed up and left.

Brown's counsellors, those in his cabinet, saw a new plague approaching in the form of the European elections. These took place on Thursday, June 4, in Britain, though the results weren't released until after the other countries voted on Sunday, June 7.

In any event, as the election date approached, his ministers began resigning.   One of the little jokes shared by careful readers of the Bible, like Brown's father, is: who is the smallest man in the book? Answer: Bildad the Shuhite (shoe height, get it?), one of Job's counsellors.

Brown, too, had his Bildad in the form of Hazel Blears, the tiny minister for communities.

On the eve of the European elections, she quit, with not a word of praise for her prime minister. Instead she wore a broach, inscribed with the words "rocking the boat."

Take that Europe

The result of all this inner turmoil within Brown's Labour party was dreadful and immediate. Britons gave Labour barely 16 per cent of the vote in the European elections.

Fighting to cling to third place in the British standings, the result was Labour's worst drubbing in a nationwide vote since nearly the First World War.

British PM Gordon Brown at the D-Day ceremony in Normandy on Sat., June 6, 2009. Are his days numbered, many Britons, including those in his own party, are asking? (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

In second place was a right-wing party called UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), campaigning against the European Union itself.

A xenophobic group called the British National Party, which campaigned against all immigrants except white ones,  took five per cent of the vote and two seats in the European Parliament.

Brown, it should be noted, was not alone among European party leaders in feeling the electoral backlash.

Like a great mangy beast, the EU is suffering from indigestion, having swallowed too many countries in too brief a period.

The behemoth is now up to 27 members, having started 52 years ago with six.

What's more, the result of all this expansion has not been growing enthusiasm but growing indifference, indeed, growing rebellion.

Reviling the beast

One indication of the indifference: turnout in these elections was just over 43 per cent of eligible voters, down from about 60 per cent 20 years ago.

Then there is the rebellion. As in Britain, some of the biggest winners on the continent were parties reviling the beast itself.

In Austria, a third of those casting ballots voted for parties snarling at the European Union. In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party came second with 17 per cent (four of the country's 25 seats), pushing the left of centre Social Democrats, until now one of the European Parliament's dominant groups, into third.

For Freedom Party Leader Geert Wilders, the main campaign plank was to stop all immigration. Plank number two was to bar Turkey and its 70 million Muslims from being admitted to the EU.

Wilders was himself recently barred from entering Britain for his anti-Islamic comments. Right-wing and anti-EU groups took noticable chunks of votes from Ireland to Hungary.

Only at the core of the union did the centre hold.

In Italy, France and Germany, the big three who originally launched the project all those years ago, the ruling centrist or centre-right parties held their ground. They will now have more potential conservative allies to choose from. Not all will be to their liking.

A conservative win

The reasons offered for the results are varied: the worldwide economic recession; concerns about the tides of foreigners washing through different countries; rapidly rising unemployment; the remote bureaucratic rule of European Union leaders in Brussels.

Like Brown and Job, the EU has its plagues to face, with likely more and worse to come.

In Britain, the big winner this week was the Conservative party (28 per cent of the vote, 25 EU seats).

Its leader, David Cameron, has said that if he wins the next British election, to be held within a year, his government would organize a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, the latest constitutional arrangement binding the EU together.

The result of such a referendum would almost certainly be an overwhelming No, causing the EU beast more than indigestion. It might well need corrective surgery.

But what of Job and Gordon Brown? After Job's counsellors wandered away, God himself arrived and spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.

The Lord asked tough questions — "where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? Have the gates of death been opened to you?" — and Job confessed ignorance and repented.

After that repentance, Job's fortunes rebounded and he doubled his previous herds. And the Lord chastised Job's counsellors for their arrogant advice.

Britain's latter-day Job is still watching his herds shrink. In the past week alone, he has had seven ministers resign on him and the party knives are clearly drawn.

He can only hope for a divine and comforting punishment of his former counsellors. But at this point, there is no telling exactly which voices he is hearing from out of the whirlwind.