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British politics: The cookie crumbles

Will the U.K. government finally fall over thanks to Biscuitgate?

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown gestures during an event at a central London venue, Oct. 12, 2009. (Anthony Devlin, via Reuters)

LONDON, U.K. — It has survived the worst of the financial crisis, weathered conflict in Afghanistan and shrugged off an embarrassing parliamentary expenses scandal, but the resolute leadership of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown this week looked like it was finally crumbling — over cookies.

With an election looming in early 2010, Brown has been out on the campaign trail, trying to reverse a plunge in popularity by persuading his jaded public that the media has unfairly miscast him as an aloof and gloomy leader beset by indecision over key issues.

So it was that the prime minister, in the role of a friendly man-of-the-people, joined a Q and A session with subscribers to parental advice website Mumsnet, little suspecting that what was intended as a cozy chat would become a storm in that most British of institutions: a teacup.

Happy to talk about weighty matters such as education, climate change and the economy, a loquacious Brown easily parried most of the questions but stumbled over a disarmingly simple topic raised by one curious mother: What's your favorite biscuit?

Not to be confused with the floury companion to gravy often found on plates in the southern United States, biscuits are what the British call cookies — or at least they do when they're not referring to them by bizarre and unappetizing brand names, of which there are hundreds.

Workplaces across the U.K. would grind to a halt unless fueled by Hobnobs, Ginger Nuts, Digestives and Custard Creams, with consumption levels reflecting not only the quirks of a country of tea drinkers but also their need to compensate for such a wet national beverage.

While it should therefore be no surprise that the voters of Britain would be thirsty for news of what their leader dunks in his morning brew, Brown clearly thought the matter too flippant and ignored it, despite being asked by Mumsnet readers no fewer than 12 times.

"Maybe he needs to consult with his advisers on what would be the most vote-winning biscuit to admit to liking," wrote one Mumsnet member, as the prime minister wrapped up his 70-minute chat, brushed non-existent crumbs from his lap and headed home to Downing Street.

But the questioning didn't stop. Reporters quickly took up the baton, pestering his press people for an answer. The following day Brown's biscuit breakdown made front page in the London Times. The right wing tabloid Daily Mail, somewhat predictably, called it "Biscuitgate."