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British Prime Minister Gordon Brown says he'll resign -- but hangs on for now -- "in the national interest"

May 10, 2010 |  3:40 pm

Brown British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who announced his resignation today, is the latest in a long line of British politicians who have stepped down "in the national interest" – or in other words, they realized it was time to go before they were pushed.

Brown’s defiant but humble words on the steps of 10 Downing Street echo those of British leaders from Tony Blair to Margaret Thatcher to Winston Churchill. In most cases, it was stirrings of discontent from within their own party that led to their demise.

This is particularly true of Brown, whose Labor Cabinet realized he was the main impediment to any deal that would take place with the Liberal Democrats, who came in third in the recent general election behind the  Conservatives and the second-placed Labor.

The Lib Dems now hold the keys to a pact that would allow the Conservatives to govern with a majority, or Labor to rule with a minority government. Much still remains in the balance.

Some political insiders estimate that Brown cost his party about 40 seats – or constituencies – in the recent vote, and he has long been unpopular with an electorate who largely holds him responsible for the UK’s economic recession.

Brown’s leadership style rankled many within his party and he was seen as something of an electoral liability, especially after several high-profile campaign gaffes in the runup to the election. The thought of Brown, who was not elected to begin with, leading Labor after such a resounding defeat was anathema to many Laborites.

Before becoming prime minister, Brown spent a decade as Chancellor of the Exchequer – akin to treasury secretary in the U.S. – as he waited for Blair to hand him the keys to Downing Street (a deal between the two for this to happen, struck before Labor took power in 1997, continues to be the subject of great debate in British politics).

Blair’s resignation in June 2007 -- to hand over power to Brown amid a simmering party backlash over the Iraq war -- was a testament to the rock-star politician Blair has always considered himself to be. Blair’s final homecoming in his constituency of Sedgefield involved him running through a crowd of adoring fans, high-fiving his faithful flock before he delivered an electrifying goodbye speech. “I have been prime minister of this country for just over 10 years. In this job, in the world today, that is long enough, for me, but more especially for the country,” he said.

Thatcher’s goodbye, meanwhile, was an unusually emotional and tearful speech from the Iron Lady delivered from the steps of No. 10 in 1992, after her cabinet refused to back her in the second round of a leadership contest during a divisive period for the Conservatives over issues such as Britain’s involvement in Europe. "We're leaving Downing Street for the last time after 11 and a half wonderful years and we're happy to leave the UK in a very much better state than when we came here," she said. Kenneth Baker, the Conservative Party chairman, said at the time: “Once again Margaret Thatcher has put her country’s and party’s interests before personal consideration.”

Churchill, meanwhile, was heavily defeated in the UK first post-World War II election and offered Brits his "profound gratitude for the unflinching, unswerving support" during the wartime effort. The prime minister who famously delivered the “blood, sweat, toil and tears” declaration for serving his country,  was compelled to go (although Churchill did return to lead the country from 1951-55, but resigned due to failing health).

Brown looked surprisingly vulnerable – some would describe it as human -- compared with his usual somewhat shadow-laden demeanor as he delivered the announcement. "As leader of my party I must accept that as a judgment on me," Brown said, although he hinted at the possibility of a wider government pact that involves regional parties, a deal that would scupper the Conservatives’ chances of governing.

In response to Brown's resignation, the Conservatives have substantially raised their offer to share power with  the Lib Dems, including a referendum on all-important voting-system reform.

"There is also a progressive majority in Britain and I believe it could be in the interests of the whole country to form a progressive coalition government,” Brown said.

However, Brown will remain in No. 10 until his successor is chosen.  All in the "national interest" of course.

-- Craig Howie

Caption: Gordon Brown is on his way out of Downing Street. Or is he?  Credit: Simon Dawson / Associated Press