Who would replace Gordon Brown?

LONDON, United Kingdom — Of all the obstacles to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s efforts to get his Labour Party re-elected next month, the biggest emerged with emphatic certainty this week: Brown himself.

And as Labour faces the increasing likelihood it will need to form a coalition to stay in power, Brown’s spectacular ability to self-sabotage could leave him facing the ultimate ignominy of being sacked by his own party — a scenario that could thrust a relative unknown into the top job.

The prospect of jettisoning the beleaguered Scotsman was raised even before Brown landed yet another blow on himself with a televised gaffe that even his detractors would have found hard not to watch without burying their heads in their hands.

It nearly went fine. Out on the campaign trail in northwestern England, Brown was buttonholed by Gillian Duffy, a retired widow who took him to task over policies including immigration — an election hot potato that has caused many of left-leaning Labour’s core voters to defect to the right.

Ending in smiles and handshakes, the exchange could have been a minor victory for Brown until, forgetting he was still wired to a television radio microphone, he climbed into his car and called Duffy “bigoted.” The quote, taped by Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky TV, was broadcast repeatedly.

It got worse. Sky played the quote back to Duffy, who renounced her lifelong support for Labour, then Brown was confronted with the recording during a radio interview and was filmed cringing, head in hand like everyone else, while offering hasty apologies.

What is unclear is whether it was Brown’s idea or that of his spin doctors to then visit Duffy’s home and spend an hour of what, for a prime minister still ostensibly running a powerful country, must be extremely valuable time groveling before publicly declaring himself a “penitent sinner.”

Whoever called the shots was pulling the Labour leader away from the equally pressing task of preparing for the last of three live televised leadership debates, the previous two of which have done little to enhance Brown’s popularity.

Opinion polls have handed victory in the debates to Nick Clegg, the youthful and (particularly next to an awkward and uncomfortable Brown) polished leader of the previously underdog Liberal Democrats, with David Cameron of the Conservatives also gaining ground.

Yet, thanks to the British parliamentary political system, under which voters elect their local representative rather than their country’s leader, a popular majority for Clegg is unlikely to be translated into a win for the Liberals.

Political scientists see the more likely outcome as a knife-edge split between Labour and the Conservatives, with either party needing a coalition with the Liberals to form a majority government.

That Clegg and the Liberals have openly rejected the notion of working with Cameron would be a rare glimmer of good news for the prime minister, if it were not for the fact their key condition for aligning with Labour is that Brown must go.

“I think, if Labour do come third in terms of the number of votes cast, then people would find it inexplicable that Gordon Brown himself could carry on as prime minister,” Clegg told reporters this week.

It’s a sentiment likely to be shared in Labour’s parliamentary offices, where opposition to Brown earlier this year erupted in a failed bid to replace him by a disgruntled gang of senior politicians, resulting in high-profile resignations.

All of which begs the obvious question: Who would replace Brown? Officially, no one from the Labour Party is unwise enough to comment on such an eventuality, but heavy speculation favors David Miliband, current foreign minister and a man in the same polished and youthful image as Clegg.

That Miliband has proved a major success on the world stage — he was a big hit with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who, much to the amusement of the British press, described him as “vibrant, vital, attractive and smart” — weighs heavily in his favor.

Given that there’s nothing like an outright denial in politics to raise suspicions, Miliband’s own publicly dogged support for his embattled boss is also perhaps something of an indicator.

When asked about the prospect, he told The Guardian newspaper: “We have chosen our leader and we have got a strong leader and we have got a program for the future. We are not having Nick Clegg choosing the leader of the Labour party thank you very much.”