Comment at end
22nd February, 2010
BROWN MUST BE THUMPING THE PILLOW TONIGHT
Just as Labour’s poll numbers start to recover, separated from the Tories by only six points, and proving that Cameron has not yet sealed the deal with the electorate – this happens. Andrew Rawnsley’s book with the portentous title – “The End of the Party”.
And after the publication of its extract today, things, for the Party, could only get … worse. It seems to answer my question here the other day after Purnell’s announcement – “What’s the REAL story?” But of course it doesn’t. Does it?
Eagle-Eyed John Rentoul says this here:
“Notable, incidentally, that The Observer has not put the serialisation of Andrew Rawnsley’s book, The End of the Party, on the internet.”
I don’t know if they are gong to serialise ALL of it, John, but I doubt it, for the reasons you state. But isn’t today’s stuff at the Observer enough for you? It’s certainly eye-opening, with some psychologically interesting phrases, and not just about Mr Brown’s state of mind:
“The Tories were almost Oedipal in their awe for Blair even when he had his back to the wall. They were becoming contemptuously confident against Brown.”
“Almost Oedipal”? Well not quite. The Tory love/hate affair with Blair was more to do with the fact that they knew that he was the best, and that he wasn’t theirs. On the other hand, perhaps that is Oedipal. Though who the heck they needed to destroy in order to possess Blair is beyond me. Unless… his entire party?
Sounds like another post, for another day.
The below quote is fairly typical of the behaviour which worried and still does, it seems, many in Brown’s den at Number ten:
“On this occasion, what the aide had to tell the Prime Minister provoked a more scary response than the stabbing of the pen. Face like thunder, Brown reacted by swinging back an arm and clenching his fist. The aide cowered back, fearing that the Prime Minister was about to hit him in the face. Brown crashed his fist into the back of the passenger seat in front of him. The protection officer flinched. This was happening more and more often.”
Rawnsley’s entire excerpt follows: (source)
Rage, despair, indecision. Inside Gordon Brown’s Number 10
In the most eagerly awaited political book for years, the Observer’s chief political commentator, Andrew Rawnsley, provides a gripping inside account of Labour governments since 2001. Here, in an exclusive extract from The End of the Party, he paints a disturbing portrait of a besieged, tortured and volatile Gordon Brown as he struggles to cope with being prime minister
Gordon Brown entered Number 10 Downing Street on 27 June 2007. He was immediately beset by a series of crises, including attempted terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, followed by flooding in large parts of Britain and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. His apparently assured response to these events generated a honeymoon with the media. As he basked in rising opinion poll ratings, speculation grew that he would call an early general election.
The idea of an autumn general election was first put into the Prime Minister’s head at the end of July. The Cabinet were summoned to Chequers just before the summer break to be given what one minister recalls as “a rather saccharine presentation” by Deborah Mattinson, Brown’s personal pollster. Once the Cabinet departed, the Prime Minister’s closest advisers joined him in the downstairs sitting room overlooking the country house’s handsome grounds.
“It looks strong,” remarked Spencer Livermore, the director of political strategy at Number 10. The private polling shown to the Cabinet put Labour eight points ahead of the Tories and suggested that Brown was seen as a superior leader to David Cameron. Douglas Alexander, the campaign co-ordinator, and Sue Nye, Brown’s political secretary, agreed the results were good. Livermore went on: “You should think about going early.” Brown was pensive. “You mean April?” he said, thinking his aide was suggesting an election in the early spring of next year. “No,” said Livermore. “I mean the autumn.” Brown, Alexander and Nye all laughed at the audacity of the idea.
Speculation about an election was encouraged by Labour’s growing advantage in the opinion polls. In the last six months of Tony Blair, Labour was behind the Tories in all but one poll. Since Brown moved in, Labour was ahead in every single poll. By the second half of July, the Government was hitting or breaking through the psychologically important mark of 40% for the first time in two years.
Brown had “gone round the Cabinet table” at the Chequers meeting, but “most people were still sceptical” about an early election, says one Cabinet minister. At this stage, Livermore was alone among the Prime Minister’s inner circle in pushing hard for the autumn. On the aide’s return from his August holiday, he wrote a memo listing the pros and cons. Brown passed a copy of the note to his allies in the Cabinet. Ed Balls was cool, as was Ed Miliband. Douglas Alexander was growing warmer, telling the Prime Minister: “You must look at this seriously.” But it was not properly discussed by Brown and his team during August, partly because of the distraction of Northern Rock and partly because “Gordon didn’t want to think about it because it was such a risk”. Brown later told his circle that one of his great regrets was “those lost weeks”. It was only in the first week of September that he dug out and reread the Livermore memo. He discussed with Alexander, Balls and Miliband how they would deal with the subject when the trio, assumed to be privy to Brown’s innermost thoughts, were asked about an early election in pre-conference interviews. They were sanctioned “to keep it running”. Not because Brown had decided on an autumn election – he was still far from persuaded – but “as a means of toying with the Conservatives. It was tactics not strategy,” says a member of his inner circle.
Divided in his own mind, Brown found that the Cabinet was utterly split when they discussed it again shortly before the conference. “Some people were putting forward the argument as a new Prime Minister he should seek a mandate,” says Harriet Harman. “But then others were reminding us that if you have an election late on in the year it gets darker earlier and then fewer people vote.”
Jack Straw, the most senior member of the Cabinet, was “always sceptical about an early election”. Straw told Brown that it was not worth the risk: “You only get an extra two years.” Also hostile were the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, and the Chancellor, Alistair Darling. The Chief Whip, Geoff Hoon, argued that it would be “a disaster” and held to the view that “the Labour vote would have haemorrhaged”. They formed an axis which became known as “the greybeards”.
Brown’s inner circle could not make up his mind for him because they were divided and in flux. Spencer Livermore, the hottest advocate, argued with Brown that he should announce an election in his speech to the conference. Douglas Alexander was growing more bullish. So was Bob Shrum, the American political consultant who had been close to Brown for years. Ed Miliband remained unconvinced. Ed Balls was beginning to change his mind, a shift which was reflected in the spin put out by Damian McBride. Sue Nye was “in a frenzy” about how she would organise a leader’s campaign tour at such short notice.
Brown pored over any sign, tea leaf or entrail that might indicate the mood of the voters. In the week before the conference, he became hypnotised by council by-elections, something normally well below the radar of a Prime Minister. Those who talked to him found that he could rattle off the details of council results all over the country. He knew precisely, to decimal points of percentages, how Labour had gained at the expense of the Tories in Birmingham and the Lib Dems in Nuneaton. “The Lib Dems lost two seats during their conference week,” he happily noted. He read great significance into a Labour victory over the Conservatives in Worcester, the city which produced the iconic electoral figure of Worcester Woman. “A 17% swing!” the Prime Minister triumphantly observed.
He commissioned Deborah Mattinson and Stan Greenberg, the American pollster who previously worked for Tony Blair, to do detailed polling in the marginal constituencies which determine election outcomes. The raw results from the fieldwork came in on Saturday 22 September. The refined data was ready to be presented to Brown by Sunday, the opening day of the conference in Bournemouth. He gathered his inner team at the Highcliff Hotel, overlooking the Dorset resort’s sandy beach. They sat in a suite which had been turned into the Prime Minister’s office for the conference week. Alexander, Livermore, Miliband and Shrum were with him in the room as Stan Greenberg gave the presentation in his New York drawl. He confused some present by “using American terminology”. But his headline conclusion was clear enough: Labour would win an autumn election with a probable majority of between 35 and 45. Brown was taken aback. This was not what he had been anticipating. The press, applying crude extrapolations to their poll results, was suggesting that Labour could do much better than that. “Gordon had been reading newspapers saying he’d get a three-figure majority,” says one present in the room. Brown grumpily wrapped up the meeting by telling the pollsters to go away and “do more work”.
The hot house of the conference became feverish with speculation. The electioneering atmosphere was heightened further by the abundant evidence that Labour was road-testing campaign propaganda. Saatchi & Saatchi, who had just been awarded the Labour account, unveiled a new slogan: “Not flash – just Gordon”. It was personally approved by the Prime Minister.
Gordon Brown opened his speech to the conference with a jab at humour. “People say to me: ‘Would you recommend this job to anyone else?’ I say: ‘Not yet.'” He continued with the projection of himself as a “father of the nation”. “Tested again and again,” he said of the summer terror plots, floods and outbreaks of animal diseases. “The resilience of the British people has been powerful proof of the character of our country.” What he hoped to suggest was that his handling of them was powerful proof of why he should remain as Prime Minister. The speech was rewarded with a prolonged standing ovation from a Labour party currently happy to worship the man who had put them back ahead in the polls. The overall media conclusion was that Brown was a leader in command of his party and ruthlessly preparing the ground for an election.
Rupert Murdoch, though, did not think there should be an early election and was using his biggest-selling daily organ to try to prevent one. “Not his finest hour” was the verdict of the Sun, which attacked Brown for dismissing the calls for a referendum on the EU treaty. Brown’s anger about that was as nothing compared with his reaction on Wednesday evening, when he learnt of the coverage in the Times. Danny Finkelstein, the paper’s comment editor, a former speech-writer to John Major and a keen student of American politics, had been struck by the familiarity of many phrases in Brown’s speech. Finkelstein confirmed his suspicions by Googling any line that sounded like a speech-writer’s phrase. Brown said: “Sometimes people say I am too serious.” That was awfully similar to a sentence used by Al Gore in 2000 when he accepted the Democratic nomination: “I know that sometimes people say I’m too serious.” Finkelstein identified several examples of phrases recycled from speeches by Gore and Bill Clinton, both former clients of Bob Shrum, adviser and speech-writer for Brown. When Finkelstein posted it on his blog that afternoon, the deputy editor of the Times, Ben Preston, thought it would make “a great splash” for the next morning’s paper.
When Brown learnt that the Times planned to lead its front page with how he had rehashed American phrases, he was “incandescent”, says a member of his inner circle. From his suite at the Highcliff, he rang complaining to Preston and Robert Thomson, the editor of the Times. “It’s a Tory plot,” he raged, trying to bludgeon them into pulling the story. “This won’t be forgotten.” He was maddest of all with his own team. Brown went berserk with Bob Shrum, whose long friendship did not protect the American from a ferocious blast of Brown’s temper. “How could you do this to me, Bob?” Brown screamed at a shaking Shrum. “How could you fucking do this to me?” Then the Prime Minister started yelling at the other aides present: “Just get out! Just get out of the fucking room!” Sue Nye became so alarmed that she felt compelled to come into the room to protect the unfortunate Shrum.
Brown continued to rage about it in private for days afterwards. “It totally threw Gordon off,” says one of his inner circle. “When he should have been thinking about the election, he was boiling about this.”
The Sunday after the conference, Balls had a long and influential discussion with Brown. “It is your decision, but I would go for it,” said Balls. “What you can’t do is make a half-decision.” One reason to go for it, he argued, was that it was unlikely the media “will give us such an easy ride at any other time”.
By the end of the week in Bournemouth, ministers felt it “building to a frenzy,” says Hazel Blears. Ed Miliband began trawling ‘frantically’ among Cabinet ministers for ideas to put in the manifesto. Most Labour MPs were convinced that it was on.
Staff in the Number 10 policy unit were working flat out, “all writing chapters for the manifesto. We really thought it was going to happen,” says one. Campaign grids were drafted. The unions were “kicking in money”. Brown ordered several crucial events to be brought forward to create a springboard. The most significant was to instruct Alistair Darling to advance the date of the Pre-Budget Report and the Comprehensive Spending Review in order to splice them together so that election sweeteners could be scattered before the voters. The weekend between the Labour and Tory conferences, Darling told Andy Burnham, the Chief Treasury Secretary, to hurry up settlement of the spending negotiations with ministers so that they could be announced. “It was all systems go,” says one member of the Cabinet. Discreet inquiries were made of Buckingham Palace to ensure that the Queen would be in London if Brown needed to ask for a dissolution of Parliament.
Brown’s calculation when he stoked election speculation was that it would divide the Tories and they would fall apart under pressure in Blackpool. Yet it turned out to be a serious miscalculation to assume that Cameron and his party would not fight back. The threat of an imminent election galvanised the Tory leadership, rallied their activists and muzzled dissent. The centre of attention on the first day of the Tory conference was George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor. The issue he targeted was inheritance tax. More people had been sucked into its net over the past decade, largely as a result of the boom in property prices. Even so, barely more than a twentieth of Britons were wealthy enough to be touched by inheritance tax. It had nevertheless become a hot-button issue among the middle classes, not least owing to noisy press campaigns against “the death tax”. Osborne unveiled a crowd-pleasing promise to exempt all but millionaires from inheritance tax. Douglas Alexander and Spencer Livermore watched Osborne’s speech on a television at Labour’s headquarters in Victoria Street. “That’s it,” said Livermore. “We can’t have an election.” Alexander looked glum: “Do you think?”
Brown had received and rejected advice to do something about inheritance tax in his last Budget the previous March. Alistair Darling had no plans to tackle it in his financial package that October. After Osborne’s speech, Brown told Darling to quickly rustle up a Labour version of an inheritance tax cut. The Chancellor was resistant. Darling protested that there was not time for the Treasury to do proper costings. Shaky maths was precisely the grounds on which Labour was attacking Osborne. Brown overruled Darling. He told the Chancellor they had to be able to neutralise the Tory promise before an election. The Treasury began to scrabble together its own scheme.
Campaign planning continued to gather pace. Billboard sites for advertising were hurriedly booked. Battersea Heliport in south London was asked to find 100 landing and take-off slots for campaign tours. By the end of the week, Labour had committed itself to £1.2m of campaign spending. As one Cabinet minister puts it: “It had gone way beyond ‘on your marks’.”
The earliest possible election date was now 1 November, a wintry Thursday for a British election. Bob Shrum argued with Brown that this wasn’t decisive. Shrum was accustomed to the American practice of holding presidential and congressional elections in November. Those with more experience of fighting British elections could see a problem, a very big one. The clocks would have gone back, bringing nightfall earlier.
At the end of the Tory conference week, there were three more published polls to digest. In one, Labour’s lead was cut from 11 points to four. In another, a 10-point lead shrivelled to three. In a third, the Tories had closed an eight-point gap since the start of the conference season to get neck and neck.
The “crunch meeting” took place at Number 10 on Friday 5 October. Early that morning, in a phone conversation with a close Cabinet ally, Brown was “still going for it” but sounded anxious about what he was going to hear from his pollsters. The inner court gathered in a ground floor room at Number 10 with a view of Downing Street through its bow-fronted window. Ed Balls was the only absentee. Stan Greenberg put his laptop down on the table and fired it up. Sue Nye then brought in the Prime Minister. Brown sat opposite the pollster, who positioned the laptop between them so that the Prime Minister could squint into the screen. Everyone else stood about, shifting nervously. Alexander and Livermore, who had already been shown the polling, looked grim. Greenberg presented a gloomy analysis of fieldwork from 150 key marginal seats. Labour had lost ground to the Tories whose promise on inheritance tax appeared to be responsible for much of the dramatic swing to them, especially in marginal seats in the Midlands and the south. The “balance of risk” was that Labour would achieve “a small win”. Looking across at Brown, Greenberg said: “I can’t guarantee what your majority will be.” They were in the territory of a parliamentary majority in the teens. If the campaign didn’t go well, it could be worse: a hung Parliament. “It was awful, a depression settled on the room,” according to one present. Brown looked at the pollster: “So we can’t do it?” Greenberg responded: “It looks very difficult now.”
Livermore made the case that they had gone too far to pull back now: “If we don’t do it, the only people who will be celebrating are Tory Central Office.’ Shrum disagreed: “That’s the very worst reason to do it.” Miliband said it confirmed his view that an election would be a mistake. Alexander shifted towards the antis. Brown walked out saying he was late for a meeting on Burma. Once he was gone, they had a franker debate. They could say in his absence what they could not say in his presence: that pulling out would be devastating to his reputation. But to nearly all in the room it was already obvious that “Gordon had gone cold on the whole idea”.
The inner circle reconvened that afternoon, this time in Brown’s office. He asked each of them in turn – Alexander, Balls, Livermore, Miliband, McBride and Nye – what they thought. No one expressed a clear view. No one wanted responsibility for the decision. “So we are not going to do it then?” asked Brown morosely. Everyone avoided his gaze.
Less than a fortnight since the triumphalist conference and his ill-judged tease about seeing the Queen, he was going to have to retreat. He asked Balls to walk with him in the garden to discuss how they might limit the damage.
By breakfast-time on Saturday, Brown had absolutely concluded that he would not risk it. The next question was how to announce his climbdown to the world. In the middle of the morning, Damian McBride rang Barney Jones, the editor of the Andrew Marr Show, to fix an interview with the Prime Minister. Jones warned McBride that it was perilous to record this interview on Saturday afternoon and expect its contents to remain secret until the next morning. “If he is going to say what I think he is going to say, the idea that this will hold till Sunday is for the birds,” the BBC editor presciently protested to McBride. “This is bad for us and bad for you.” McBride rejected that advice and insisted that Brown would only do it as a pre-record.
It was delusional to think that news of such magnitude could be managed like this in a 24/7 media environment. By Saturday morning, senior members of the Cabinet were in the loop and word of the cancellation of the election was reaching political journalists. One troubled member of the Cabinet observed to me that morning: “The big, precious thing Gordon had – his reputation for solidity – that will be eroded.”
“We’re going to take a terrible hit for this,” said one of Brown’s Cabinet allies. “So much for Gordon, the great strategist,” sighed a third Cabinet member.
Brown’s court started to devour itself as members of the inner circle attempted to dump culpability for the farrago on each other. To try to distance Brown and Balls from the debacle, Damian McBride spent Saturday afternoon on the phone to journalists of Sunday newspapers. He was spinning all the blame on to Douglas Alexander, Spencer Livermore and Ed Miliband. Several reporters were successfully persuaded that they were at fault for pushing Brown towards an election and then getting last-minute cold feet. As McBride rubbished other members of the Prime Minister’s inner circle to reporters, he was caught in the act by Livermore who yelled at the spin doctor: “What the fuck are you doing?” McBride retorted that he was obeying orders from Balls: “I’ve been told to by Ed.” The two aides screamed at each other in front of civil servants until Sue Nye dragged them out of the room.
Many relationships in the Brown court were permanently poisoned by this calamitous episode. Alexander and Miliband would never again trust Balls and McBride. A disenchanted Livermore, who was least skilful in deflecting blame for a debacle that had many authors, left Number 10 six months later.
The fratricidal spinning and the interview fiasco added tactical foolishness to strategic stupidity. Brown was supposed to be the great chess player of politics, the man who always thought a dozen moves ahead. The legend was exploded that weekend when the supposed grandmaster checkmated himself.
Days later, Alistair Darling rose to deliver a pre-election financial package when there was no longer an election. On the Saturday that Brown called it off, the two men agreed that they should pull the inheritance tax cut hastily cobbled together in imitation of the Tories. In the words of a Treasury minister: “We were told to slam everything into reverse.” Only they couldn’t. A dismayed Darling was told by his officials that it was too late: the Pre-Budget Report was already at the printers. The Chancellor’s wife confided to friends: “It was not Alistair’s PBR.” This was true: it had been dictated by the Prime Minister.
When he addressed MPs, Darling made the announcement on inheritance tax with not a drop of conviction. The most he would subsequently say in defence of it was that it had “some merit” – damning with the faintest of praise what was supposed to be the centrepiece of his first big occasion as Chancellor. Sitting beside him in the Commons, the true author had a glint in his eye, but it was swiftly apparent that Brown had again been too tactical for his own good. Rather than trump his opponents with this manoeuvre, it looked as though Labour was lamely playing catch-up.
Both the mini-Budget and the accompanying spending review were all too obviously cobbled together on the back of a (now redundant) campaign leaflet.
Darling, who received a highly negative press for his first important outing as Chancellor, became angry with Brown for forcing him to do it, cross with himself for not standing up to the Prime Minister and determined to be stronger in future. The PBR was both a significant political error which reduced confidence in the Government’s decision-making and a financial misjudgment. Expensive games were played with inheritance tax rather than taking measures to prepare for the economic storm already being signalled by the markets. After the debacle of the phantom election, what the Government most needed was to be calm, solid and purposeful. This episode instead made it look frantic, hollow and rudderless. Brown, the master of events a month before, had now put himself at the mercy of them.
Alistair Darling was at his home in Edinburgh on the morning of Saturday 10 November, when the phone rang. His Private Secretary broke it to him that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs had somehow lost two computer discs containing the confidential personal and banking information of more than 20 million people. The Chancellor swore to himself. Darling instantly grasped that this was “really very, very bad” for a Government still reeling from the double debacles of the phantom election and the Pre-Budget Report.
The poor unfortunate with the unenviable task of briefing the Prime Minister was Gavin Kelly, the Deputy Chief of Staff at Number 10. Gordon Brown was so enraged that he leapt across the room. Grabbing a startled Kelly by the lapels of his jacket, Brown snarled: “They’re out to get me!”
Brown found being Prime Minister much harder than either he or his acolytes had imagined. It is a short walk from Number 11 to Number 10, but a giant leap for one man. The Brown team had been adept at destabilising, guerrilla warfare against Blair. When they were the insurgents, they could pick the issues where they wanted a fight and ignore others. This left them underequipped for the different demands of being responsible for an entire government and having to battle on many fronts at once.
As Chancellor, Brown had often been able to do his Macavity trick of disappearing in a crisis. As Prime Minister, he could no longer play the mysterious cat. There is no hiding place at Number 10. He was on a steep learning curve. But since experience was supposed to be the reason he got the job, inexperience was not an alibi Brown could ever use. He sounded surprised to make the discovery that “hundreds of things pass your desk every week”. He did not excel at multi-tasking. His preference and his forte were to concentrate on one big thing at a time. He had largely been able to do that at the Treasury, where he could focus on the four or five major events of a Chancellor’s year. Prime Ministers can get hit by four or five major events in a month, even a week. “As Prime Minister, you are bombarded with things, everything happens in real time,” says one Downing Street official who closely observed both Blair and Brown.
Torrential volumes of business flow through Downing Street, much of it demanding instant attention. Civil servants at the Treasury had adapted to and covered for Brown’s chaotic and intermittently intense way of making decisions. Officials at Number 10 and the Cabinet Office were at a loss how to deal with his working habits. Confronted with difficult decisions, one senior civil servant found: “He just delays and delays, thinking he will get a better set of options later. But quite often the options just get worse.”
This was exacerbated because Brown was so power-hugging. Geoff Hoon summarises it well: “One of the great ironies of Tony and Gordon is that both of them didn’t have any time for ministers. The difference is that Tony broadly let you get on with it. He wasn’t much interested unless something went wrong. In contrast, Gordon wants to interfere in every-thing. He’s temperamentally incapable of delegating responsibility. So he drives himself demented.”
One of Brown’s most loyal supporters in the Cabinet described the state of Number 10 as “chaos”. Nor was he good at masking it from opponents, who could tell that he was “just overwhelmed by the pressures of being Prime Minister,” says Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader and Treasury spokesman.
Even the basic housekeeping wasn’t being done. Letters from important people, including MPs, went unanswered. An aide to one senior minister lamented that when they called Number 10 “no-one answers the phone”. There were cases of foreign embassies not being told whether a visiting leader was going to be granted a meeting with the Prime Minister and dates being muddled up.
The French Prime Minister offered to come over for the opening of the splendid new Eurotunnel station at St Pancras in November. The Foreign Office was excited, but could not get Brown interested and there was a gratuitous snub to the “very offended” French. Routine decisions took weeks to process. Cabinet ministers and their senior officials began to speak with extraordinary vehemence about what one called “the sheer dysfunctionality” of Number 10. They did not know the half of it. On the account of one civil servant: “However chaotic it looked from the outside, it was a billion times worse inside.”
The debacles of the cancelled election and the lost discs were followed by further disaster when the police began investigating allegations of unlawful party donations.
Gordon Brown’s morale sank lower. He privately groaned: “For this to happen to me, it eats my soul.” Number 10 lived on shredded nerves. “It was one damn thing after another,” says one senior aide. “We just didn’t know what was going to hit us next.” Visitors to Downing Street found the staff in “shellshock” and asking: “How can this have happened to us? We’re still the same people who were very popular two months ago and now we’re besieged.”
It accelerated the profound psychological descent of Brown since the election debacle. One of his most senior and longest serving aides says: “He closed in on himself. He went to ground. He was a lonely figure.” His inner demons gnawed at him with the fear that perhaps he was not up to being Prime Minister. “It’s my fault, it’s all my fault,” he self-flagellated in front of intimates. He was consumed with remorse and guilt for the mistakes he made over the phantom election.
He became even more temperamental about his coverage in the media, obsessively monitoring the press headlines and the prominence he was getting in television news bulletins. If his speeches and initiatives were ignored or got less coverage than David Cameron, he would “lash out” at those around him.
A dark pall descended on the whole building. An official noted that “he surrounded himself with people who amplified his weaknesses rather than compensated for them. There was no camaraderie. It was a quite depressive, introverted, dysfunctional coterie.” Long-standing members of his inner circle had endured Brown’s temper for years and accepted the tantrums as part of the price of working for a complex man they admired. One veteran of his court says: “Over the years, I’ve had all sorts of things thrown at me – newspapers, pens, Coke cans.” This sort of behaviour was a shock to staff at Number 10 who had been accustomed to the courteous manners of Tony Blair and John Major. “Gordon’s mood was absolutely black the whole time. He was in a permanent state of rage,” observes one civil servant. “Staff were afraid of him because he was always shouting at people, being unpleasant, constantly blaming people for things going wrong. He never had a nice word to say to anybody.”
Another official agrees: “He was astonishingly rude to people.” Civil servants were shocked by his habit of abruptly getting up and leaving meetings when officials were in the middle of speaking. He became notorious within the building for shouting at the duty clerks, bawling at the superbly professional staff who manned the Number 10 switchboard and blowing up at the affectionately regarded “Garden Girls”, so called because the room from which they provide Downing Street’s secretarial services overlooks the garden. When one of the secretaries was not typing fast enough for an angrily impatient Prime Minister, he turfed the stunned garden girl out of her chair and took over the keyboard himself. Word of these incidents reached the alarmed ears of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, who was becoming increasingly anxious about the Prime Minister’s behaviour. The Cabinet Secretary was so concerned about the garden girl episode that he made his own inquiries into it. Though the worst excesses of the Prime Minister’s temper were kept hidden, it was inevitable that some accounts began to filter out across Whitehall and then into the media, which reported stories about mobile phones being hurled in fury and the furniture being kicked.
One civil servant who applied for a position at Number 10 was asked at the interview whether he could cope with “extreme verbal abuse” and violence done to objects. The civil servant was so scared by the description of what it could be like to work for the Prime Minister that he withdrew his application.
Wednesday was an especially hazardous day to be working in close proximity to the Prime Minister. He was getting pulped at the dispatch box by David Cameron with a regularity which Labour MPs found excruciating to watch.
“For 10 years, you plotted and schemed to have this job – and for what?” the Leader of the Opposition ridiculed him during one typical encounter that autumn. “No conviction, just calculation; no vision, just vacuum. How long are we going to have to wait before the past makes way for the future?”
Brown responded by complaining that the Tory leader had once promised “an end to the Punch and Judy show”. So Cameron had. But it sounded painfully lame for Brown to protest about being punched too hard. He became increasingly obsessive about preparing for these clashes. The prep team would meet at Number 10 on Tuesday evening for a preliminary discussion about what might come up at PMQs and how he should handle it. They then reconvened on Wednesday morning. In rehearsals, Ed Miliband played the part of David Cameron. This was not a role to which he was ideally suited because Miliband was not temperamentally equipped to be brutal with his boss. Geoff Hoon, the Chief Whip, was another regular member of the prep team for PMQs. One Wednesday morning, having had an early engagement that day, Hoon arrived at Number 10 at breakfast-time. Entering the prep room, he expected to have a long wait for the others only to find that Gordon Brown was already there, sitting alone, scribbling notes with his black marker pen, worrying away about how he was going to handle that day’s high noon with Cameron.
Brown had been “ferociously hard-working” since childhood, says his friend Murray Elder. The eternal scholarship boy responded to adversity by thinking that he would find the answer to his problems by labouring even harder. He went to bed later and got up earlier, working even more fiercely in the belief that this was the way to get on top of things. He did not grasp that what he most needed to do was to learn to delegate and to prioritise. Sarah Brown despaired that her husband could not be persuaded to stop. “I used to believe Gordon when he said he wasn’t a workaholic,” Sarah sighed over a lunch with one friend. ‘I don’t now.’
Members of the Cabinet began to worry that “he is going to make himself ill if he carries on like this”. Jacqui Smith told him to his face that it was a mistake not to have a summer holiday and “he ought to back off and have a bit of a rest”.
At the end of the year, the Prime Minister retreated to his home in Fife to nurse his wounds in the company of some of his oldest friends. His summer honeymoon now seemed to belong to a long-gone era. It had turned into an awful autumn and then a wicked winter. He was stripped of the aura of invincibility which secured him an uncontested coronation and then cloaked him for the early weeks in Number 10. The multiple accidents and errors which began with the election debacle reminded people that this was a rusty government presided over by a flawed man who had been at the centre of power for more than a decade. Labour’s position was now as troubled, if not more so, as it was in the last days of Tony Blair. Gordon Brown was a wounded and often ridiculed Prime Minister.
Hogmanay is an important night for most Scots, but there was little air of celebration at the Prime Minister’s home in North Queensferry. Brown was not up at midnight to see in the New Year. He took himself off to bed at 10.
On Friday 27 June 2008, Brown had his first anniversary in Number 10, an event marked not by celebration but by further humiliation. He woke up to the result of the Henley by-election in which Labour finished an awful fifth, beaten not just by the Tories and Lib Dems, but also by the Greens and the BNP. He spent much of the rest of the day trying to persuade Wendy Alexander not to resign as Labour leader in Scotland after she was suspended from the Edinburgh Parliament for 24 hours over campaign donations. She quit the next day.
All this deepened the darkness encroaching over his premiership. There were cries of betrayal from the leftwingers who had foolishly imagined that Brown would give them socialism in one country. Liberals found his premiership no less centralising and authoritarian, and in some ways more so, than his predecessor’s. That did not mean that there was contentment among the Blairites. They didn’t like Brown’s backpedalling on public service reform and complained that he was even more useless as a strategist and communicator than they had feared. The Tories were almost Oedipal in their awe for Blair even when he had his back to the wall. They were becoming contemptuously confident against Brown. Critics from across the spectrum were united in saying that his premiership lacked shape, vision and any purpose other than its survival. The hero of the summer of 2007 descended into the zero of the summer of 2008. He knew the worst wounds on his premiership had not been inflicted by the Conservatives or the media, but by himself.
That summer, Brown descended into a terrible place, politically, psychologically and physically. “He looked awful,” says a senior member of his staff. “People at Number 10 were pinning their hopes on the holiday, but the fear was that he wouldn’t have a proper holiday.” A retired senior civil servant came to visit former colleagues at Downing Street. He was spotted by the Prime Minister who, desperate for someone to talk to, dragged him into his office for a chat. “He looked tired in his bones,” the former mandarin told friends. “It was that sort of tiredness that a week’s sleep won’t cure.” A senior politician had a meeting with the Prime Minister shortly before the recess and was shocked by what he saw. “He looked absolutely terrible. The shoulders were hunched. The flesh was literally dripping off his face. I wanted to give him a hug.”
Some of his friends wondered how long Brown, a proud, clever and sensitive man, could endure being routinely roasted in the media as a semi-autistic, mendacious liability. “Why are they saying these things about me? Why are they doing this to me?” the Prime Minister beseeched one aide. To a senior Scottish Labour MP, he confided: “So much has been thrown at me, I can’t go any lower.” Sarah Brown told a friend that she was “very worried” about her husband. A sympathetic Labour peer thought he was “very crushed”. Brown could sense that even his closest allies were distancing themselves, even Ed Balls. “It was not exactly what was said, it was what wasn’t said. Ed wasn’t responding instantly any more when Gordon needed help.”
On another account, Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander and Ed Miliband “all decided that they were too busy running their departments to spend as much time as they used to with Gordon”.
There was an embarrassing scene at the summer barbecue in the back garden of Number 10 for those who worked there. It was customary for the Prime Minister to make a speech to the staff. This required no fancy oratory; just a few words of thanks. When Brown proved reluctant, Jeremy Heywood, his Permanent Secretary, endeavoured to persuade him. “It would be really good if you could do it,’ the senior official came close to begging the Prime Minister. “It would mean a lot to people.” Brown shook his head: “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”
Brown’s exhaustion and sense of isolation made his temper even shorter and blacker. Officials became more apprehensive than ever about delivering unwelcome news for fear of the reaction. One aide with bad tidings decided to break it to the boss when they were travelling in the back of the Prime Minister’s Jaguar. As was customary, the aide took the rear seat behind the driver. Brown sat behind the protection officer. The cream upholstery of the seat back in front of Brown was flecked with black marks. When having a meltdown, the Prime Minister would habitually stab the seat back with his black marker pen. On this occasion, what the aide had to tell the Prime Minister provoked a more scary response than the stabbing of the pen. Face like thunder, Brown reacted by swinging back an arm and clenching his fist. The aide cowered back, fearing that the Prime Minister was about to hit him in the face. Brown crashed his fist into the back of the passenger seat in front of him. The protection officer flinched. This was happening more and more often. The Prime Minister’s compulsion to vent his temper by hitting the upholstery became so regular that sitting in front of him was regarded as the worst duty among the protection squad.
Immunity from Brown’s rages was not conferred on officials just because they had been long-time and loyal servants. If anything, he seemed to think he could be more abusive to those who were closest to him. He was probably right: they were the most likely to bury the darker truths about his behaviour. Stewart Wood – a senior adviser and a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford – had served Brown intelligently and faithfully for years.
In advance of the June meeting of the European Council, Wood arranged a lunchtime reception at Number 10 for the ambassadors representing the European Union. Brown joined them only for the coffee. Wood was waiting at the door of the first-floor Pillared Room, where the reception was being held, when Brown came up the stairs. The Prime Minister was in an especially evil mood. When Wood tried to brief him on which of the ambassadors he should speak to, Brown blew up in a staggering rage. “Why have I got to meet these fucking people?” he yelled. “Why are you making me meet these fucking people? I don’t want to meet these fucking people!” Brown roughly shoved his adviser aside. He stormed into the room, leaving behind a shaken and shocked Wood. Several of Brown’s senior staff collectively decided they weren’t going to put up with this sort of conduct and told the Prime Minister to his face that he couldn’t go on behaving so badly.
Sir Gus O’Donnell became “very worried” about Brown’s treatment of staff at Number 10. If it led to a formal complaint against the Prime Minister that would be both unprecedented and disastrous. The Cabinet Secretary tried to calm down frightened duty clerks, badly treated phone operators and other bruised staff by telling them “don’t take it personally”. O’Donnell eventually felt compelled to directly confront the Prime Minister and gave him a stern “pep talk” about his conduct towards the staff. “This is no way to get things done,” he told Brown and warned him that he had to moderate his behaviour.
In July, Jeremy Heywood was on his way out of Number 10 for lunch when he was waylaid by Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister asked his Permanent Secretary whom he was seeing. A slightly sheepish Heywood confessed that he was having lunch with Peter Mandelson, the man with whom Brown had conducted an epic feud for more than a decade. To the civil servant’s surprise, Brown responded: “Can I come too?” Heywood politely demurred. Brown then said: “Can you ask Peter to come and see me after lunch?”
Unknown to the world, and to most of those who worked in Number 10, the Prime Minister had acquired a new and secret adviser whose identity would have been astonishing to everyone at Westminster. Not only was Peter Mandelson back at court, but he had returned to offer counsel and support to Gordon Brown. For 14 years they had engaged in fratricidal struggle alternated with frozen silences. Their enmity – Mandelson called it an “uncivil war” – was so deep for so long that it was the unanimous view that the relationship was irretrievably poisoned. Just before Brown became Prime Minister, relations fell to a new nadir after Mandelson’s radio interview in which he declared that he would not seek a second term as a European Commissioner in order to deny Brown the pleasure of sacking him. No one had found it more difficult to reconcile themselves to Brown being premier than Mandelson.
In March, Brown went to Brussels for a meeting with the man he had for so long regarded as a sworn enemy. Officials doubted that the encounter would last its allocated 20 minutes. After an initially frigid start, the permafrost began to melt. When they discussed the gathering storm in the international economy, Mandelson turned on his charm. “It’s a good thing you’re there,” he remarked, saying that Brown had the requisite experience and expertise for this moment. “The country is going to turn to you.” Officials were amazed when the two men chatted amicably for more than an hour – and about much more than trade – while the British ambassador kicked his heels waiting to get back the use of his office.
That conversation, the longest and friendliest that they had enjoyed in years, initiated a rediscovery of the things that they had once admired in each other. They began to remember that once upon a time, before the great rupture after the death of John Smith, they had been closer to each other than either had been to Tony Blair. Now that Blair was gone from Number 10, the relationship was also no longer complicated by being a three-sided marriage.
This rapprochement was further spurred by mutual desperation. Mandelson’s time as Trade Commissioner was winding down to retirement in 2009. With little prospect of a world trade deal, it looked as though his term in Brussels would end on a note of failure. The intellectual challenge and the perks of being a Commissioner had never fully reconciled him to his separation from British politics. His yearning to return was an ache more sharp because there seemed to be no chance of ever satisfying the desire. He told Philip Gould that he woke up every morning with “an almost physical pain” because of his detachment from Westminster.
At his best, Mandelson had a most acute grasp of political strategy and communication, a talent sorely absent in Brown’s Number 10. A flailing and isolated Prime Minister needed those skills. The two men began to have increasingly frequent conversations on the phone in which Brown would seek advice from Mandelson about speeches and float policy ideas with him. One aide who overheard Brown’s end of a call recounts: “Gordon would ask: ‘What should we do about today’s Sun?’ and ‘What should I say on tomorrow’s Today programme?’ and ‘What should we do about this problem?’ He was talking to Peter like he used to talk to Ed Balls.”
By the summer, Mandelson was slipping secretly into Number 10 or up to Chequers almost every weekend that he was in Britain. There were still many edges to this emotionally tangled relationship. Mandelson’s first Cabinet career was destroyed by Brown’s acolytes when they leaked the Geoffrey Robinson home loan. Mandelson could not resist poking a finger into this deep scar. During one of their tête-à-têtes, he interrupted a discussion about a speech: “Gordon, we haven’t talked about what you let your people do to me.” Brown looked down into his papers and grunted: “Yes, well, that should never have happened.” After an awkward pause, Brown then said: “Now, what about the speech?”
Brown occasionally teased Mandelson with the thought that he might one day return to British politics, but the other man supposed that this was just joshing. His assumption that he could never return to the Cabinet liberated him to be increasingly blunt with Brown about the terrible state of his premiership. By July, Labour’s poll rating had descended from dire to diabolical. For fear of another petrol tax revolt, the Government committed another panicky U-turn by suspending indefinitely the scheduled 2p rise in fuel duty. Brown could sense the hostility towards him in the Cabinet when he could not even win their confidence about his economic messages. “Gordon started to think: ‘If I can’t convince them on the economy, that’s it’,” says one aide. The media turned feverish with speculation that senior members of the Cabinet were steeling themselves to sack the Prime Minister. David Marshall, the MP for Glasgow East, resigned – officially on the grounds of ill health. This triggered a by-election that Brown was so frantic to avoid that he rang Marshall “about 15 times’ to plead with him not to quit.
At one meeting that summer, Mandelson issued Brown with a dreadful warning. You are in peril, he said, of going down in history as one of the worst postwar Prime Ministers. “If you don’t change, you are going to lose Number 10. You’ll be out by October or November.” This was brutally accurate and franker than anyone else around Brown would dare to be. Yet Brown did not react angrily. He instead responded by nodding sadly and giving the other man a pitiful look. “I know. I know I’m going to lose it,” the Prime Minister said to the man who had once been his closest ally, then his bitterest enemy and was now his secret confidant. “Will you help me?”
© Andrew Rawnsley
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