Gordon & Sarah: A couple united by tragedy and hope

While his colleagues were briefing journalists about his leadership ambitions and 'psychological issues', the Chancellor and his wife were dealing with the news that their son has cystic fibrosis. Francis Elliott reports
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Indy Politics

Four months ago, Gordon Brown emerged, beaming, from an Edinburgh hospital holding his newborn second son. "I feel that the sun is shining very brightly on my family today."

This weekend the sun is still shining. But the news, revealed last week, that Fraser has cystic fibrosis shocked the Chancellor's colleagues, his family and friends. Yet both Gordon and Sarah Brown insist that they do not regard this as a "tragedy" and that their son is a happy, thriving four-month baby with more than a fighting chance of living a full and long life.

They had intended to keep Fraser's condition private. It is a genetic disorder affecting the respiratory and digestive systems. But someone sold details of his medical records to The Sun and the tabloid broke the story on Wednesday night.

Mr Brown's first instinct is to support his wife at this time. The intensity of the couple's bond is underestimated by those outside the immediate circle, say friends who expect them to pull yet more closely together as a result of their son's diagnosis.

"He's incredibly proud of her. To spend time with them is to realise that these two really love one another," says one.

The pair face a difficult anniversary later this month on 28 December, the birthday of their first child, Jennifer Jane. In a recent interview he stated that the 10 days she lived five years ago changed him more than any other.

He said: "There is nothing worse than having a young, precious baby taken from you. And you never come to terms with it. You always know that there's something missing."

The terms of Gordon and Sarah Brown's relationship changed after Jennifer's death. Whereas he had previously always supported her, that tragedy briefly reversed their roles, say friends. "She was younger and took his lead, but all that changed after Jennifer. At first, Sarah supported Gordon but, over the next year, she really needed him and he was always there."

"Now they are equals," a friend said recently.

The birth of the second child, John, in October 2003 was naturally a cause of great joy and the arrival of James Fraser Vaughan this July was another blessing. But days after the birth, a blood test for cystic fibrosis (routine in Scotland not yet so in England) threw up a positive result.

Gordon Brown took 10 weeks' paternity leave supporting his wife. For two months, the Browns had to endure an agonising wait to see if the second son was simply a carrier of the cystic fibrosis gene or would be a sufferer of the condition itself.

That confirmation was given around the middle of September. It hit hard.

Their private grief coincided with one of the most tumultuous weeks in Mr Brown's career. After several of his allies resigned from the Government in protest at Tony Blair's refusal to set a timetable for his departure, he was accused of masterminding a coup.

At the time, the Chancellor was accused of being "control freak" with "psychological issues" who "lacked courage". They are words that Charles Clarke might regret all the more in the knowledge that when he used them Mr Brown was coming to terms with the fact his son might not live to be a teenager.

Labour's annual conference, held this year in Manchester, was a particularly challenging time. Observers noticed that Sarah Brown seemed distracted and withdrawn through the seemingly endless rounds of parties, dinners and meetings that fill the conference week. The lot of the politician's partner can rarely have felt more wretched for the former PR executive, as she showed off her new son to newspaper executives and cabinet ministers while keeping secret his condition.

There have been difficult days since. Each time her son has a cold, Fraser is taken to hospital as a precautionary measure. So far he is showing no symptoms of his cystic fibrosis, but the hospital visits are distressing for his parents, nonetheless.

Gradually, however, Gordon and Sarah have started to adapt both to the reality of their son's condition as well as their move into Downing Street.

For most of his Chancellorship, Mr Brown has divided his time between a small flat in Westminster, which he bought when Labour was in Opposition, and his constituency house in North Queensferry, Fife.

Famously, he gave up his flat in No 11 for the one above No 10, which the Blairs, with their expanding family, had found "too pokey".

Gordon and Sarah Brown did not use the official property, preferring to be in their own place a short walk away near Great Peter Street.

Over the summer, however, they moved into the accommodation that has been refurbished at an as yet undisclosed cost. The move was reported at the time as the Browns "measuring up the curtains" for his long-anticipated succession as premier.

But friends insist that it was motivated by family factors, rather than any desire to harry the Blairs out of No 10. The Great Peter Street flat is too small for two children, and Gordon and Sarah thought it about time that they prepared themselves and their boys for life behind iron gates and armed guards.

The newly done-up No 10 flat has been remodelled to provide accommodation for the Browns' nanny. (Their existing nanny, Hannah, is taking a year off to travel and the couple have hired a temporary replacement.) Such help is going to be invaluable in the months and years ahead when time-consuming condition-management routines become necessary.

Scottish friends are beginning to see less of the Browns as they settle into their new London home. The fact that their eldest child, John, has started school limits the number of weekends spent in Scotland since the family can no longer decamp to North Queensferry on Thursday afternoons as they once did.

Officials in the Treasury are becoming use to the sight of John ­ who named his brother ­ running in during detailed economic discussions.

A typically energetic little boy, John does not stay long among the suits and statistics. He likes to play either in St James's Park or in the No 10 garden, just as the Blairs' youngest son, Leo, did was he was a toddler.

But what of Fraser: will he, in time, join his brother playing on the slides and swings? Naturally enough, the Chancellor is emphasising the positive (not least, say friends, for the benefit of his wife's morale).

Yvette Cooper, wife of Ed Balls, the Chancellor's closest political ally, presented the public face on Wednesday night, saying that the young boy was thriving.

"He is a delightful, bouncing boy. We saw him this week. He is a very bright and bubbly boy who is doing very well. Fraser is a lively addition to the family. They are getting on very well and it is great to see him developing so well. They are a strong family," she added.

Gordon and Sarah Brown were married in August 2000 after a long, semi-public courtship. He met Sarah Macaulay when the company she jointly founded, Hobsbawm Macaulay Communications, helped organise media events for the Labour Party. He was 13 years her senior, a bookish, middle-aged bachelor ­ but the two fell in love.

"Sarah calms Gordon down," a cabinet minister told The Daily Telegraph in September. "She helps him to keep everything under control. " She recently bought her husband an iPod ­ the same gift which Samantha Cameron bought her husband last Christmas.

It is inevitable that comparisons between the women would be drawn even before it emerged that both have sons with life-limiting conditions.

In so far as Fraser's condition has political consequences, they are that David Cameron is likely to soften the tone of his attacks on the man he expects to fight for the keys to No 10 at the next general election.

The Tory leader and his wife, whose elder son Ivan has a severe form of epilepsy and needs 24-hour care, sent a message of support. The inclusion of her name in the message is telling ­ normally Samantha, like Sarah, likes to keep well away from the frontline.

Both are independent-minded women who are professional and disciplined in the way they carry out their roles as political spouses.

Neither are keen cooks ­ Samantha tends to leave the cooking to her husband, while the Brown household seems to be fed largely by Marks & Spencer, report visitors.

Samantha Cameron is an enemy of pomposity while Sarah Brown can be sardonic ­ a trait that occasionally leads people to believe that she is aloof. Neither woman is tribal.

George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, who often laments his poor personal relationship with Gordon Brown, recently said that Brown's wife "could not have been nicer" when he introduced himself to her when he spotted her pushing her pram around Westminster.

Unlike Samantha Cameron, however, Sarah gave up her career when she got married. After Jennifer's death, she devoted her energies to a charity for sick newborn babies, writing hundreds of letters in reply to those sent by well-wishers.

Robert Peston, the author of Brown's Britain, said: "She is more like a Tory wife. She is phenomenally loyal and very professional about her role."

And she clearly loves being a mother. A friend recently said: "She adores being a hands-on mother. She has read every baby manual. She is more of a disciplinarian[than Gordon], but they both muck in."

There is little doubt that this second blow has been keenly felt. And while the couple have had several months to get used to the news, they still face an agonising wait to see just how aggressive Fraser's cystic fibrosis will turn out to be.

Even a mild form of the condition entails an unpleasant and inconvenient medical regime of drugs, physiotherapy and regular medical assessment.

In time, it is likely that he will need at least one transplant ­ organs such as the kidneys and liver are put under abnormal pressure as a consequence of the condition.

It is natural for the Browns to be emphasising the positive as they tell family and friends about Fraser's illness. But it is not hard to imagine their private anguish.

CYSTIC FIBROSIS

What is it

Cystic fibrosis is an inherited genetic disorder that affects a number of organs, especially the lungs and pancreas. The condition triggers malfunctions in the glands that produce digestive enzymes, causing them to produce thick and sticky secretions which can clog up the lungs and stop the pancreas from breaking down food in the gut.

There is no cure for cystic fibrosis, but life expectancy for sufferers has improved significantly in recent years. Until the 1930s, the life expectancy of a baby with the disease was only a few months. The severity of symptoms still varies greatly, but today the average life expectancy for someone with CF is around 31 years.

Physiotherapy and drugs can help to prevent the excessive build-up of mucus in the lungs, while enzyme pills compensate for the pancreatic malfunction. Antibiotics are used to control lung infections, but if all other treatments fail, patients who become severely ill with the disease may be given lung transplants.

There is still no way of preventing CF, but in 1989 an international team identified the faulty gene which causes the disorder. Research is currently focused on finding ways to either repair or replace it through gene therapy. Scientists in the UK have already corrected the genetic defect in mice. The next step is to develop a treatment for humans.

The prognosis

There is no cure for cystic fibrosis, but life expectancy for sufferers has improved significantly in recent years. Until the 1930s, the life expectancy of a baby with the disease was only a few months. The severity of symptoms still varies greatly, but today the average life expectancy for someone with CF is around 31 years.

The treatment

Physiotherapy and drugs can help to prevent the excessive build-up of mucus in the lungs, while enzyme pills compensate for the pancreatic malfunction. Antibiotics are used to control lung infections, but if all other treatments fail, patients who become severely ill with the disease may be given lung transplants.

Medical advances

There is still no way of preventing CF, but in 1989 an international team identified the faulty gene which causes the disorder. Research is currently focused on finding ways to either repair or replace it through gene therapy. Scientists in the UK have already corrected the genetic defect in mice. The next step is to develop a treatment for humans.

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