Like most things related to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the material was rather dull. On Sunday, the Observer newspaper ran an excerpt from columnist Andrew Rawnsley’s new book The End of the Party, about Labor’s rule since 2001. The 8,000-word selection rehashed familiar episodes from recent history, such as Brown’s inability to make up his mind about calling an early election in the fall of 2007 and his rapprochement with longtime political rival Lord Peter Mandelson. It was in the Observer’s separate front-page story about the book that things got more interesting: “Gordon Brown’s abusive behaviour and volcanic eruptions of foul temper left Downing Street staff so frightened that he received an unprecedented reprimand from the head of the civil service,” the article began. It further claimed that “Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, became so alarmed by the prime minister’s behaviour that he launched his own investigations when he received reports of Brown’s bullying of staff.”
The prime minister and his allies (and Sir Gus) denied the allegations. His former adversary Lord Mandelson told the press, “I don’t think [Brown] so much bullies people as he is very demanding of people. He’s demanding of himself.” Few people thought there was much new in Rawnsley’s portrait of the prime minister. As the Guardian’s Michael White put it in a podcast Tuesday, “You only have to look at Gordon Brown to realize that he’s not a little ray of sunshine.”
That might have been the end of the story if it hadn’t been for Christine Pratt. What she did not only extended the story for a few more chapters; it may even have helped the Labor cause less than three months before a general election whose outcome is surprisingly hard to predict. It also provoked near-unprecedented agreement from commentators across the political spectrum: Brits, they say, need to toughen up and quit their complaining.
Pratt is the founder of a small British charity, the National Bullying Helpline, who contacted the BBC after hearing the reports and claimed: “Over recent months we have had several inquiries from staff within Gordon Brown’s office. Some have downloaded information; some have actually called our helpline directly and I have spoken to staff in his office.” She continued, “We are not suggesting that Gordon Brown is a bully, what we are saying is staff in his office working directly with him have issues, and have concerns, and have contacted our helpline.”
Pratt’s allegations had two effects: She was attacked for the breaching the confidentiality of hotline callers—at least three high-profile patrons, including an outspoken Tory MP, broke with the charity over her gaffe—and the press, including many of the prime minister’s harshest critics, rushed to defend Brown against interfering tittle-tattles.
As Libby Purves put it in the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times, “Any mild disapproval of Gordon Brown banging and roaring round Downing Street like Godzilla is now eclipsed by disgust at the prim, self-aggrandising whiners of the victim industry.” She roared on, “This is Downing Street, the heart of government in an age of recession, terrorism, war and electioneering. It is not a sheltered workshop for the emotionally frail.”
In the true-blue Tory Daily Mail, A.N. Wilson declared: “By all means, if you will, say that he has been a lousy Prime Minister. But Brown’s bad temper is not a reason for discrediting him—any more than his having the sight of only one eye, or his having a Scottish accent.”
Of course, the focus on Brown’s personality—and that of his main rivals, Conservative Party leader David Cameron and, to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg—is all about the upcoming election, which is expected to be called for May 6. The latest polls show the Conservative lead shrinking, and most commentators now predict a hung Parliament. None of the parties cares to linger on the issues—particularly the trickiest, public spending and the need to make cuts in Britain’s generous entitlement programs—so it suits everyone to prioritize the personal.
In the last few weeks, the famously private and dour Brown has submitted to several sit-downs. In a TV interview with Piers Morgan that aired on Valentine’s Day, he talked about proposing to his wife and cried when he discussed his daughter, Jennifer, who died 10 days after her birth, and his concerns for his son Fraser, who suffers from cystic fibrosis. According to the Daily Mail, during the interview he also admitted that “he lost his temper sometimes, but denied he had ever hit any of his aides.”
Few would claim that the prime minister’s charisma deficit is a strength. But these days, Britain’s best-known political operative is Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed short-tempered Scotsman from the movie In the Loop and the TV show that spawned it, The Thick of It. Perhaps it’s better for a politician to be seen as a badass than a bungler. In the last three years, Gordon Brown has survived three palace coups in which underlings tried to oust him from the top spot in the Labor Party. Last November, he was harangued by a bereaved mother who complained about his penmanship in a 13-minute phone call, which was later made public by the Sun newspaper. Now he is the action hero of a CGI animation from Taiwan’s Apple Daily.
No one likes or wants to elect a bully, but it won’t hurt Brown to be seen as a serious, hardworking politician who cares enough to lose his temper. As one of the commentators on the Observer Web site put it, referring to Rawnsley’s claim that Brown “would habitually stab the seat back with his black marker pen” when he was angry: “[I]f he was honest and acted like this when in public he would storm the election. Less creepy smiles more biro stabbing.”