LONDON // Gordon Brown could be forgiven for being one of the few world leaders not transfixed by the outcome of the US election in two days' time. For him the crucial test at the polls comes not on Tuesday, but about 48 hours later. Hence, the gaze of the British prime minister, currently visiting the Gulf, is not on Washington but on the seemingly obscure Scottish town of Glenrothes where a much smaller - but to Mr Brown even more significant - election takes place on Thursday.
One month ago a by-election in the town, caused by the death of the sitting Labour MP, seemed to be the last thing the prime minister needed. At the time it appeared that by year's end a challenge to his leadership would be inevitable if Labour lost the seat. And lose it they seemed almost certain to do, with the bookmakers making the Scottish National Party (SNP) the runaway, 4-1 odds-on favourite for victory, not least because of its stunning by-election success in Glasgow East during the summer, where it overturned a Labour majority of more than 20,000.
But any month in politics is a very, very long time? and this past month has been even longer than most. It has seen banking crises followed by global economic crises followed by fears of worldwide recession. And Mr Brown has emerged from it all, at least for the moment, smelling of roses. His bank rescue plan has been adopted throughout much of the West and his standing in the opinion polls has soared, although admittedly from a very low base. In the latest survey he had cut the Conservatives' previous 15-point lead by 11 points.
At the same time the wheels seem to have been falling off the SNP bandwagon. After its capture of the Scottish assembly in the spring and its victory in Glasgow, its fortunes have nosedived as speedily as Mr Brown's have risen. The underlying reason is the same: the economic crisis. For years, Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, has been pointing to an "arc of prosperity" of three small, northern European countries as his blueprint for an independent Scotland.
Unfortunately for him those three nations were Iceland, which is now effectively bankrupt, Ireland, which had to guarantee everyone's bank deposits as the bank system there approached collapse, and Norway, whose foreign minister publicly rebuked Mr Salmond last week, saying the Norwegian experience was nothing like that of the Scots. Labour could scarcely believe its luck. "Alex Salmond has been humiliated by the Norwegian minister's comments," crowed Iain Gray, the party's leader in Scotland. "His bogus claims about other countries? are now becoming embarrassing and a distraction. He should concentrate on what he should be doing in Scotland during the crisis."
The SNP's problems deepened when Peter Grant, who is attempting to overturn a Labour majority of 10,600, revealed that, if elected, he did not want to spend more than five years in the UK parliament in London because of homesickness. Even before the five years were up, he added, he hoped Scotland would vote for independence in a referendum so that he would have to spend a minimum amount of time in Westminster.
"I don't want to spend any more time down there than I have to," Mr Grant said. "I would be homesick after more than that." Such remarks were manna for Lindsay Roy, the Labour candidate. "If I have the honour of being elected," he said with self-righteous indignation, "I will serve as long as the people of Glenrothes so choose." John Park, a party spokesman, went further. "Peter Grant looks half-hearted and not interested in the job. It is really breathtaking arrogance to think that he can just give up because he might be bored or homesick."
Even so, Labour is far from home and dry and the party knows it. A steady stream of ministers has been traipsing up to Glenrothes - a neat if uninspiring "new town" largely built after the Second World War - in the hope of tipping the balance in Labour's favour. Mr Brown himself has been up there campaigning, most recently on Friday, hours before flying off for his mini-trip to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. Such prime ministerial trips are a rarity in an age when sitting premiers normally consider themselves above the mudslinging fray of by-election politics.
The stakes for the prime minister, though, are high. Although he has won domestic and international approval for his actions during the economic turmoil, Mr Brown knows that the SNP has been effectively campaigning on the issue of rising energy bills in Glenrothes. At the moment, the bookmakers have even odds on Labour winning the seat, with SNP at 11-8 against. It is a major turnaround from a month ago, but nowhere near the guarantee of victory that Labour would like.
And Mr Brown badly needs that victory. If, after winning plaudits for his handling of the economy, he still cannot lead Labour to a win in Glenrothes, then he can expect the knives of his opponents within the party - and there are many of them - to be flourished again, with even sharper edges this time. firstname.lastname@example.org