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."
Daily Telegraph columnist Judith Woods could barely contain her outrage, writing: "Let's be blunt. Not having a favorite biscuit is unnatural — freakishly so."
"While it's entirely possible to negotiate adult life without a favorite football team or holiday destination, only robots (and Gordon Brown) can't name their favorite biscuit. Which possibly tells us all we need to know about our beleaguered premier."
Meanwhile the prime minister's rivals stepped in to make public their own preferences: carefully considered selections suggesting that perhaps Brown, who styles himself as a spin-free no-nonsense politician, was wise to take advice rather than shoot from the hip.
Conservative Party leader David Cameron, whose elitist background could prove anathema to many voters, opted for a rather austere oatcake, while Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, another politician often derided as "too posh to be in power" selected a low-cost Rich Tea.
Like even the toughest cookie when put under pressure, Brown eventually snapped. Less than 24 hours after his Mumsnet appearance, the prime minister admitted via Twitter that he liked "absolutely anything with a bit of chocolate on it" although he is trying to cut down.
But Cameron would not let the issue lie. Days later he used the boisterous weekly debate of prime minister's parliamentary question time to declare that Brown's biscuit indecision undermined his ability to go on governing.
"Are we really going to spend another six months with a prime minister who cannot give a straight answer, cannot pass his own legislation, who sits in his bunker not even able to decide what sort of biscuits he wants to eat?" he asked the House of Commons.
With the matter still a topic of fevered water cooler (or water heater at tea times) discussions in offices across the country, Cameron's comical comments have a serious edge.
But whether Biscuitgate will be responsible for choosing Britain's next leader is something perhaps better left for fortune cookies to predict.