As polling stations closed on Thursday night, and the fifth minister resigned from Gordon Brown's government within three days, it was suggested that British politics were coming to resemble a Shakespearean tragedy, with the Prime Minister cast as a tragically flawed hero. By yesterday morning, as a sixth minister stepped down for "family reasons", the political drama being played out in Downing Street had lapsed into a bad, door-slamming, Whitehall farce.
There has never been anything quite like this in British political history - a government falling to pieces before the voters' eyes. The spectacle is all the more bizarre because there is no discernible ideological fault-line running through the Labour party, as there was in the Conservative party in the run-up to Margaret Thatcher's overthrow in 1990. Nor is Brown personally reviled by a large section of the British electorate, as was Mrs Thatcher. His unpopularity is neither personal nor ideological - it is just that growing numbers of his own MPs, and the public, believe he is hopelessly inadequate to the job. The Prime Minister can only achieve at the moment a vague sense of sympathy, but the office he holds demands respect, otherwise humiliation follows.
Brown was supposed to be re-shuffling his cabinet team early next week after an expected kicking from voters in this week's local government and European elections, but many of the cards have already voluntarily slipped out of his pack. So a patched-up new administration had to be rushed out yesterday morning in a desperate effort to restore his authority. This was not so much a reshuffle as an operation to plug the holes in his government caused by a series of resignations.
Having allowed his political cronies to let it be known that Alistair Darling, the chancellor of the exchequer, was to be moved, he had to abandon the change when his supposed subordinate simply refused to budge to a different job. Brown is now so weak he could not afford to let Darling resign in a sulk. Thus, as Brown clings on to power in the teeth of the biggest economic crisis in a generation, the British economy remains in the hands of a man who no longer enjoys the confidence of the prime minister.
Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears, two ministers deeply implicated in the expenses scandal that has tarnished the reputation of British politics in the past four weeks, jumped this week before they could be pushed. On Thursday night James Purnell, an arch loyalist of the former prime minister Tony Blair, timed his resignation to cause as much damage as possible to Brown. He urged the prime minister to resign for the good of the Labour party and give it what he woundingly called a "fighting chance" of winning the next election, which must be held within a year.
No one can remember a British government losing authority so completely. One comparison is with the summer of 1962, when the Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan sacked one third of his cabinet on what was dubbed the Night of the Long Knives. But Macmillan had the courage to fire those he regarded as disloyal or incompetent, and to wield the knife before they could embarrass him by resigning. Brown, by comparison, dithers until he becomes the victim of political circumstances, not the man who directs events.
Some years ago in the heyday of Blair's rule, it became known that the prime minister's circle regarded Brown, then the chancellor, to be so "psychologically flawed" that he could never be trusted to step up to the premiership. More recently it has been suggested that was specifically Blair's own view, not just that of a member of his staff. It was a vicious thing to say of anyone, even of a political rival, but the more that is seen of Brown trying to be prime minister, the more people think it is accurate. He resembles a chimpanzee trying to operate a highly complicated piece of machinery. He pulls levers and presses buttons, but nothing happens; he tugs on strings to assert his authority, but the string goes limp in his hands.
During his 10-year premiership, Blair glided around the country and the world, spreading easy bonhomie and charming those he met. By contrast, Brown looks sullen and his body language is simply wrong. He smiles at the wrong moment when he talks, and he speaks in political slogans rather than in phrases normal people understand. Brown looks grey and haunted, and he has aged a decade in the two years he has been in 10 Downing Street. There are bags under his eyes, and his fingernails are bitten to the quick. This is not a man upon whom authority rests easily. He looks miserable, and increasingly he makes the British people feel miserable.
The key to the disasters that have befallen his premiership may well be partly psychological, but they are also perhaps a consequence of a Scottish upbringing that makes him an outsider in the incestuous world of London where politics and journalism intersect. Born in 1951, the second of three sons of a minister of the Presbyterian Church, he was brought up in the drab Scottish industrial town of Kircaldy. He was a keen rugby player and an academically precocious child who was accelerated through the school system to win a place at Edinburgh University at the age of only 15.
But his world was to darken, literally, just before he went up to university when he was kicked so violently on the rugby pitch that both his retinas became detached. He remains blind in one eye, and regained only limited vision in the other after a series of operations, and weeks spent recuperating lying rock-still in a darkened room. Though his staff are cagey about providing details, it appears his eyesight is currently deteriorating further, which might account for his awkward public manner and his lack of social confidence.
Indeed, he has had more than his share of personal trauma in his life. An obsessive political wonk, Brown married late, to Sarah, an elegant and charming woman who has done her best to make up for her husband's manifest presentational shortcomings. They suffered a tragedy when their first child, Jennifer, was born prematurely and died in early 2002. They went on to have two sons, one of whom has been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
So life has not been easy for Gordon Brown, especially compared to the man in whose shadow he was forced to live for a decade, Tony Blair. Blair had it easy: a comfortable middle-class background, an exclusive private school followed by Oxford University, the ideal background to shin up the greasy pole of British politics. (David Cameron, the Conservative party leader, had a similarly easy start in life, only more so.)
Perhaps this accounts for Brown's awkward manner, his bullying of rivals, his refusal to admit mistakes, or to say sorry when he fails. When one of his close aides was caught out sending vicious e-mails besmirching Conservative opponents, Brown reluctantly fired him, yet could not bring himself to apologise to the targets of the smears. It's that strange psychological flaw that Blair so unhelpfully highlighted.
Brown's reaction to the current scandal over the mass abuse of the expenses system by scores of MPs has been equally flat-footed and inept. He has not adequately disciplined those in his own party caught out by the publication of their receipts; nor has he understood the public's rage about the abuse of public money. Gordon Brown appeared yesterday lunchtime to have seen off the move to overthrow him by pleading with his supporters to fill the gaps in his cabinet. But his medium-term prospects still look dire. Dozens of Labour MPs know they face losing their seats and their careers at a general election within a year, and that the longer this political farce plays out in London, the worse the defeat will be.
Even if Brown clings on for the next few weeks, his government is becalmed and will not be able to achieve anything. His allies and enemies alike know - as Tennyson wrote of King Arthur - that "authority forgets a dying king". Perhaps it is a genuine tragedy, after all, that the political death of an essentially humane and decent man will be regarded with relief on all sides of the political spectrum.
* The National