Have you seen this man? The hunt for the former PM
Forty days after leaving Downing Street, Gordon Brown is back home in Fife. But, despite reported sightings, he is proving to be an elusive quarry. Brian Brady tries to pick-up his trail
Sunday 20 June 2010
Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath is a big place: a long arc of coastline backed by hundreds of square miles of former pit villages, seaside towns and Fife countryside. More than enough space to hide a former prime minister if he really does not want to be found.
Gordon Brown is definitely in his constituency, though. We know this because his staff tell us so, and almost everyone else there swears that he is. They can all reel off at least one incident where he has been seen out and about, usually at schools – although few so far can claim to have seen him with their own eyes.
Which is why I start my search for signs that Mr Brown is back in town with a visit to the Bethany Christian Trust shop in Kirkcaldy. It was here, less than a month after Mr Brown's departure from Downing Street, that his colleagues brought a collection of household items deemed no longer necessary.
"They asked us if we took donations and then just came back with all this stuff," said the shop's assistant manager, Andrew Farley, of the three "suited and booted" men who brought possessions including teddy bears, recipe books and wine glasses. "We had loads of people coming in the next day asking to see it.
"Mr Brown opened the shop four years ago and he has kept in touch, although we haven't seen him in person recently."
But, alas, any hopes of grabbing evidence of Mr Brown's existence prove short-lived. "Our bosses have told us to take it off sale," Mr Farley added. "There is some idea of auctioning it off in the future."
Gordon Brown was a dominant force in British government for 13 years but, since walking away from Downing Street on 12 May, he has all but disappeared. His bric-a-brac has been plucked out of circulation and, to a great extent, so has he.
Mr Brown has been seen in Parliament only once since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took power, and colleagues do not expect him to return soon.
"He is reflective but not down... he is chilling," one friend said last night. "He feels freed of an enormous burden, and is facing his responsibilities. He's not beating himself up about the defeat, but he feels he has to accept what is his."
It turns out that he is "spending most of his time in his gazebo, writing", although at this stage it is not clear what. What matters is that Mr Brown has responded to defeat by returning to friendly ground.
"He had a terrible time with people criticising him all the time," said Jacqueline Butterworth, of the Chocolate Box newsagents in Kirkcaldy High Street. "He's a good man and he did a very good job – and you'll find most people round here think that as well." What's more, she believes the former PM has visited the local college, though she hasn't seen him herself.
"He isn't doing interviews at the moment," says a friendly official at Mr Brown's constituency headquarters. I venture that I'm not the first person to ask. "We've got a stack of requests," he replies.
In the constituency office, the small team given exclusive control over Mr Brown's diary now that he has lost the support of the Downing Street machine are sending out thank-you cards to well-wishers in the constituency and "all around the world". On the front, there is that picture of Mr Brown, wife Sarah and sons John and Fraser leaving Downing Street; on the other, a message outlining plans to "serve our country" and to "return to Fife, where Gordon will continue his work as MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath".
The message is clear: Mr Brown is no longer national property, but he has a life in his constituency. His allies, in fact, insist that he is already immersed in constituency issues, notably the effort to visit all local schools before the summer break, and to encourage them to take a role in planning leisure, mentoring and other facilities in the area. It is hardly saving the world from economic catastrophe, but it is keeping him out of the gazebo. There is, however, little evidence that he is back out on the streets.
The IoS also understands that Mr Brown and his wife will also carry out some voluntary work of the type they did under the radar last summer, while he was still PM. One local asserts that Mr Brown spent time at the Maggie's cancer support centre at the local hospital, "doing a bit of filing".
A call to the centre, which he opened and where Sarah Brown is a patron, finds staff enthusiastic about the family's support, although he has not been seen for a while. Unfortunately, further calls are referred directly to the organisation's head office in Glasgow.
There is nothing for it but to take the direct route and seek Mr Brown at home in North Queensferry, on the edge of the Firth of Forth. The house is not hard to find; a sturdy detached home overlooking the sea, high hedges and the obligatory trampoline in the front garden. And the electronic key-pad entry system at the gate. And the high-end security cameras trained on the street.
The only sign of life, however, is the large police vehicle parked around the side of the house. The gazebo is not in view. As Mr Brown's security requirements have been steadily increased there are rumours that he has been advised to move to a property that will be easier to protect. But there is no "for sale" sign as yet, and local estate agents remain uncommonly discreet when asked about the chances of marketing the property in the near future.
Then, just as it appeared Mr Brown had completely gone to ground, he stuck his familiar head above the parapet. The constituency office announced that he would be visiting two schools on Wednesday, partly in response to the weight of media inquiries (a television crew had been politely asked why they were hanging around outside the house).
He turned up at Burntisland Primary and Beath High School – which he opened in 2004 – where he entertained pupils with a story about having to tell Nelson Mandela who Amy Winehouse was while she was on stage before them at an Aids charity concert. Mr Brown looked relaxed and cheerful, but remained elusive; access was restricted to a tight pool of media outlets, and only the children were allowed to ask questions.
The significance of the visits was laid bare by the following day's Fife Free Press, not in its report but in the headline: "MP in call for school meeting". For those in Westminster who wonder what has happened to Gordon Brown , he has receded from PM to being a local MP and, for the moment, he is dealing with that.
How long that will last, however, no one is sure. Allies in the constituency maintain that Mr Brown will remain the local MP, but their confidence only extends to the end of the current Parliament. While Mr Blair has gone largely for financial reward, Mr Brown is unlikely to be tempted by short-term gain: the prospect of him eventually taking over as head of an international institution, such as the World Bank, has been revived. He may, some contend, be happy with a lower-profile position.
"Gordon is highly marketable as an academic," one friend said. "He'd be very tempted by a temporary job at somewhere like Harvard [though] he probably will stay on as an MP." At least they'll know where to find him.
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