Gordon Brown: He's in the pink, and staying that way

Press claims of a PR machine designed to improve the public image of Gordon Brown as he positions himself as Britain's next prime minister are hopelessly flawed, says his former spin doctor Charlie Whelan
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The Independent Online

I once had the pleasure of shopping in the Big Apple with Gordon Brown and I reckon he bought about a dozen of those awful red things, but more importantly he also purchased a scarf for his future wife Sarah. I don't know what she made of the Chancellor's thoughtful gift but I do know that she didn't think much of his choice in neckwear. It was Sarah, the PR woman, who managed to persuade Gordon to brighten up his tie collection and it is she who chooses his ties for the big occasions and who first got him to wear a trendy Paul Smith number.

A few weeks ago Sarah's choice of a pink tie for her husband to wear on Sunday AM triggered thousands of column inches on the rebranding of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Are pink ties back in fashion? Mine went to the Oxfam shop 20 years ago. Never mind what the Chancellor told Andy Marr: the old maxim of never mind what you say it's how you look that matters was once again spectacularly proved right. I can't recall so much ill-informed rubbish being written by so many hacks since ... er ... well, the last time.

There were, of course, other reasons for the latest obsession of Westminster Village with everything Gordon Brown does, and inevitably it started with a piece of spin from none other than Alastair Campbell. Bored of touring the country - as well as boring the rest of us - and having achieved the unique honour of being blamed for the defeat of the British Lions in New Zealand by just being there, he's back giving advice in No 10. That's not good enough for Al, though; he wants to be seen to be advising the next Prime Minister too. And so it was that Patrick Wintour, the new political editor of The Guardian, splashed on how Blair's former spin doctor was helping the Chancellor out. Gordon Brown is as likely to take Campbell into his confidence as he would buy Peter Mandelson a drink.

Even more preposterously it was also claimed in the same newspaper that Philip "Third Way" Gould was advising big Gordie too. Ha Ha. The very first act of the new Chancellor when he took office was to set up his own focus groups under the direction of Ed Miliband so that he never had to listen to the drivel from Gould ever again.

These silly stories coincided with a week in which Gordon Brown and his team had decided to stray from his Treasury brief and talk about terror. The Chancellor does stray from his Treasury brief all the time, as anyone who has listened to his Party conference speeches will know. Inevitably, though, this big speech received massive coverage, as was intended, and it is fair to say it was of more significance because we all know that Tony Blair is on his way out.

Having missed out last time there was a Labour leadership vacancy, there is no chance of Gordon Brown missing out again. It is impossible to portray in print the emotional rollercoaster that Gordon went through following John Smith's death. He had spent a few years prior to that making himself very unpopular with many in the party in order to push through an economic policy that would make Labour electable. He did this in the sure knowledge that should a vacancy for leader occur he had a deal with the only other potential leadership candidate. We all know what happened next and it's been a long 10 years for Gordon.

There is no doubt that Gordon Brown is now preparing for a takeover - he doesn't want to get caught out again. But the idea of a makeover? His office obviously denies it and has every reason to. It's not true. Changing the Chancellor's image now would be stupid and so obviously wouldn't work. This is especially true given that his Tory opponent at the next election, David Cameron, has concentrated exclusively on image.

The British people may not know Brown that well but they know enough of him to spot any phoney makeover. His critics, including many around Tony Blair, claim that Brown's problem is that he doesn't come across well on television and certainly doesn't appear as the "rounded" human being the Prime Minister is. They conveniently forget that the public no longer trusts or likes Tony Blair. It does, though, trust the Chancellor. Sure Brown isn't "good show business" as Mandelson so accurately described his secret champion, but politics has moved a long way since Mandy ruled the roost.

So do the Blairites have a point? Well, there is some truth in what they say, but only a little.

The most frustrating thing I found working for Gordon Brown was that he never came across on television as well as he did with the cameras turned off. I think that's because he rehearses everything he's going to say in advance and he just isn't an actor. I would often encourage Gordon not prepare too much for media appearances and would go nuts when I found some one else phoning him and winding him up.

Despite any faults, Gordon Brown is much better than most politicians "on the TV sofa" and instinctively knows what he can get away with. When I was approached by Ulrika Jonsson to let the Chancellor take part in a film with her about the euro, my instincts were to turn her down. Gordon was up for it, and during the filming it was she and not the Chancellor who looked more nervous. The programme was a huge hit and served a dual purpose. Gordon Brown showed he wasn't always the dour Scotsman he is so often seen as and Alastair Campbell was furious that Ulrika wanted to appear on TV with the Chancellor and not the Prime Minister.

Unfortunately if Gordon was involved in a similar stunt today there would be a media frenzy. The Chancellor only had to don a flying helmet a few weeks ago and the part-time image consultants were out in force. Mind you, whoever allowed him to wear that piece of headgear should be shot.

Far from changing Gordon Brown's image, his chief spinner Damian McBride, gatekeeper Sue Nye and adviser Spencer Livermore are now having to do everything they can to keep it as it is - and why not? Is it such a bad thing to have a serious Prime Minister who doesn't have a permanent grin and has a record second to none in running the British economy?

Surely the nation has had enough of Blair weaving his web of lies and deceit.

The nation will also rejoice at having a Prime Minister who doesn't tell porkies about his love for the national game. I sat next to the Chancellor at an England vs Scotland match at Hampden Park and he didn't speak to me for weeks just because I leapt out of my seat when England scored and we went on to win.

Gordon Brown himself will win and he certainly doesn't need to nor will listen to those who have spent the past decade advising Tony Blair.