British PM Brown on brink in last days of election race

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Prime Minister Gordon Brown has failed to charm voters during Britain's general election campaign -- even causing serious offence to one -- and looks set to be voted out of Downing Street as a result.

In a contest dominated by the first-ever televised pre-poll leaders' debates, the dour and stiff Brown was always going to struggle alongside his charismatic, younger opponents, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

But few could have predicted his prickly personality would come to the fore quite so dramatically as when he was caught calling an elderly widow a "bigoted woman" after she confronted him over immigration.

Gillian Duffy, 66, a lifelong supporter of Brown's Labour party, said she did not care if he won the election or not after what he said about her.

And opinion polls showing Labour has fallen from second to third place during the campaign suggest many people feel the same.

Brown, 59, admits he is sometimes "impatient" but has denied claims he bullied Downing Street staff, which emerged in a book by a respected political commentator earlier this year.

If he is ousted, though, "bigotgate" could be seen as a key turning point and Brown will become one of the shortest-serving premiers of recent years.

He only took over from Tony Blair in 2007 after years of waiting impatiently in the wings.

Brown was born in 1951, the son of a Church of Scotland minister, and grew up in Kirkcaldy, a manufacturing town north of Edinburgh which is now in his parliamentary constituency. He says his "moral compass" comes from his father.

A bright child, he was fast-tracked through school and went to Edinburgh University aged 16, where he gained a degree and a doctorate in history. He was elected as top student leader, effectively launching his political career.

This was despite a rugby accident which left him blind in one eye and seriously limited his vision in the other.

After working as a journalist and lecturer, Brown was elected to parliament in 1983 and became friends with Blair, another new lawmaker and rising star.

When the then Labour leader John Smith died suddenly in 1994, Brown and Blair were frontrunners to replace him.

They agreed Blair would become Labour leader but would eventually hand over to Brown.

When Blair won the general election in 1997, he made Brown finance minister and gave him unprecedented power over domestic policy. Brown earned the nickname the "Iron Chancellor" and increased spending on public services.

But as Blair remained prime minister for longer and longer with no sign he would step aside, relations between the two came under intense strain.

Blair eventually resigned in 2007 following pressure from Brown supporters and fierce public anger over the Iraq war. Brown took over from him unopposed.

After a brief honeymoon period, Brown's popularity dived after he pulled back from calling an expected general election that October.

The following month, an opposition lawmaker summed up his fall from grace by saying he had gone "from Stalin to Mr. Bean" -- a blundering, slapstick TV comedy character -- in a few weeks.

Brown's faced plunging poll ratings. He faced repeated attacks from his own lawmakers as well as several foiled plots to end his leadership.

The credit crunch in late 2008 seemed to provide a much-needed focus for his premiership.

Although Brown's efforts were praised and imitated abroad, Britain suffered a record recession and was the last major world power to start growing again.

Labour's popularity briefly got a fillip from the recovery, but then Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, shook up the campaign with strong performances in the TV leaders' debates and Labour fell into third in opinion polls.

Brown wants to stay on as leader after the election, but speculation is already rife about who might replace him, with Foreign Secretary David Miliband a leading contender.

Brown is married to Sarah, a former public relations executive, and they have two young sons, John and Fraser. A daughter, Jennifer, died in 2002, days after being born prematurely.

© 2010 AFP

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