Gordon Brown has mounted a remarkable and angry defence against "lies" that could threaten his chances of a return to No 10 after the general election. The accusations concern his behaviour and treatment of staff.
In an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday, the Prime Minister revealed his frustration at the way he is portrayed by what he sees as a "hostile" media.
In particular, he dismissed the suggestion that he once assaulted a senior aide while rushing to a Downing Street reception. Three allegations of physical violence on members of staff appear in a new book about the Brown regime by the political commentator Andrew Rawnsley. It is serialised in The Observer today.
"It is simply a lie to say that I've ever hit anybody in my life," Mr Brown said. "I may have done one or two good tackles at rugby, but the idea that is suggested in this so-called inside account is just ludicrous."
The problem of getting his message across at a time when he faced damaging claims that he had behaved violently towards junior staff during a "reign of terror" in Downing Street lay behind Mr Brown's decision to agree to his controversial televised interview with Piers Morgan last week.
"What I say to the public has been mediated by newspapers that are very hostile to me," Mr Brown told the IoS. "It's important that people form their own impression, rather than have an impression imposed upon them by other people."
Mr Brown's strike against his detractors came as the parties began campaigning in earnest for a general election that is now only weeks away. In a keynote speech to party activists yesterday, he issued a "clarion call" to disillusioned Labour supporters and signalled that the economy would be at the heart of his campaign to claw back the Tories' lead in opinion polls.
The outburst coincided with a new poll showing Labour had cut the Tories' lead to just six points, the smallest gap since December 2008. A YouGov survey for The Sunday Times showed Labour jumping two points since last month to 33 per cent and the Conservatives falling to 39 per cent. The share would deny the Tories an overall majority at the general election.
Tory grandee Lord Heseltine claimed David Cameron would not win a general election outright and would struggle to form a government. The former deputy prime minister said he would "put money" on a hung parliament, with the Tories the largest party.
The Prime Minister used his interview with the IoS to set the scene for the campaign, attempting to establish "clear red water" between the Government and the Opposition across a wide range of policy areas.
In an attack of unusual ferocity, he claimed that Mr Cameron was leading a party that was right-wing, "unreconstructed" and "would destroy opportunities for millions of people to get middle-class jobs and incomes".
Mr Brown said: "The Conservatives have done all the public relations part of ... trying to persuade people they've changed. They've got the posters, they've got the slick advertising, they've got the big budgets for slogans which suggest they're different. But, in practice, when you actually look at the policies, there's not much evidence that they've changed."
Mr Brown also confirmed that he will be giving evidence to the Iraq conflict within days – in effect, ruling out any lingering possibility that he might call an early election.
However, his appearance before the Chilcot inquiry is likely to increase the pressure on the former premier Tony Blair. Mr Brown hinted strongly that he intended to distance himself from the big decisions that propelled the UK into war on Iraq.
After confirming that he supported the war on the grounds of Saddam Hussein's "breach of international obligations" – rather than his alleged weapons of mass destruction – Mr Brown said he was obliged to support the decision. He added: "I'll deal with all these questions when I give evidence but, for me, it's always been about a country that refused to co-operate with the international community over many, many years, when it was in breach of its international obligations.
"In Britain, it's a cabinet decision. You accept the collective responsibility in a cabinet, and I would expect every member of a cabinet I was in to accept their collective responsibility. When a decision's made you've got to stand up and defend it."
Labour has trailed the Tories in the opinion polls for more than two years, since the end of Mr Brown's "honeymoon period" as Prime Minister, but the gap has been closing gradually in recent weeks. In a speech in Warwick yesterday, launching the election slogan "A future fair for all", he attempted to attract disillusioned voters back to Labour, saying: "Take a second look at us, and take a long, hard look at them."
He developed the theme in his interview with this newspaper, insisting that the election was a choice between two opposing approaches, rather than a "referendum" on the performance of the Government.
Mr Brown said: "We've gone through a very deep global financial recession, which has affected every country, and we've had this additional challenge in Britain because of what happened over MPs' expenses.
"People are taking a look at the Conservatives and saying they're not quite sure what they're seeing. I think they're beginning to see through them.
"Let's be honest, the Tory party want to appear centre-ground, middle-of-the-road and pro-public services. But every time they have to declare a policy, or are forced back on the defensive, to say what they really believe, they expose themselves as right-wing."
Labour says it would postpone major cuts until 2011, hoping to stimulate economic growth. The Conservatives have said that if elected, they would slash spending to tackle a deficit likely to top £170bn – a plan that Mr Brown said would choke off recovery and lead to a decade of austerity.
But last night the Tories dismissed Mr Brown's new strategic push, claiming that voters would reject Labour because of its performance during three terms in office. The party also released a list of 10 policies they said have made Britain "unfair" – including Mr Brown's controversial decision to abolish the 10p tax rate and Labour's record on social mobility.
Mr Cameron said: "The truth is it's the very people that Gordon Brown says he's fighting for who have actually suffered the most. Today, it's the Conservatives that can say: we're not the party of the few, or even for the many – we're the party for everyone."
After Mr Brown's speech the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, told the BBC: "Fairness is something real, and what I think will make people feel very angry is to hear Gordon Brown talk about delivering fairness when he's failed to do so.
The PM versus a hostile press
When Gordon Brown complained to The Independent on Sunday about his unfair treatment at the hands of a "hostile" press, he was referring to his more traditional enemies, including The Sun.
But last night he was locked in an ugly battle with The Observer, previously one of New Labour's most loyal supporters.
At issue was a potentially explosive "inside account" of the Brown regime, which forms the centrepiece of the newspaper's relaunch today. Downing Street had been girding its loins in preparation for the arrival of Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party for several weeks.
Mr Rawnsley, The Observer's political columnist, claimed that the Prime Minister's "bullying" of staff had been so acute that Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary and Whitehall's top civil servant, had been forced to issue an official reprimand. Furthermore, in a series of accounts of alleged "volcanic" outbursts, he listed three episodes where staff had been victims of Mr Brown's aggressive behaviour. He claimed the Prime Minister grabbed his deputy chief of staff by his lapels, roughly shoved aside a stunned adviser and turfed a typist out of her seat.
Just at the moment that Mr Brown is making a fragile recovery in the opinion polls, Downing Street had been dreading last night's headlines. Mr Brown had told the IoS that any suggestion he had ever hit a member of his staff was a lie, but there was little disguising his worry.
But even before The Observer had hit the newsstands, a spokesman for Sir Gus rejected the charges. "It is categorically not the case that the Cabinet Secretary asked for an investigation into the treatment of Mr Brown's staff," the spokesman said last night.
A senior member of the Brown camp added: "These stories are malicious, potentially libellous. They are being hyped up by a reporter with a book to sell."
Countdown to polling day...
In late January, the Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, appeared to let the cat out of the bag when he said that voters "will wake up and rue the day if they wind up with a Conservative government in charge of this country after 6 May". Few expect Mr Brown's plans to change radically.
21 February The Observer publishes an extract from Andrew Rawnsley's new book, The End of the Party, which raises questions about Gordon Brown's temperament and behaviour.
22 February MPs return to Parliament and begin the process of finishing off any outstanding legislation.
27-28 February Conservative spring forum in Brighton. David Cameron can kick-start the Tory campaign.
10 March Earliest date for the Budget.
23 April The Office for National Statistics releases growth figures for the first quarter of 2010 and few expect good news. This is the main reason why some still cling to the suspicion that Mr Brown might get an election out of the way early, before the electorate realises how bad things are.
6 May Local elections. Governments have a tradition of holding general elections on the same day as locals.
3 June The last possible date an election can be held.