Gordon Brown wrote a dying Mo Mowlam two "emotional" letters expressing his sadness over her terminal illness and his profound remorse over the disintegration of her cabinet career under Tony Blair.
The Prime Minister sought to heal a long-standing rift with his former cabinet colleague shortly before she died in 2005 from a malignant brain tumour. Mr Brown, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote to Mowlam and her husband, Jon Norton, expressing his sadness at her condition. But The Independent on Sunday understands that he also expressed his regret about the coldness that had afflicted their relationship for more than 15 years.
One source with intimate knowledge of the letters, sent within days of each other in the summer of 2005, said each ran into several pages and had "the ring of sincerity" about it.
He added: "Gordon said he was deeply sorry about Mo's condition, but he went much further. He said she could have achieved so much more if circumstances had not conspired against her. He also made it clear that he regretted the frostiness that had developed between them. It was surprising; not the sort of thing you would normally expect from Gordon."
Details of Mr Brown's attempt to bury the hatchet came as a TV drama tonight revives memories of Mowlam's frustrations at the politics that helped to force her out of the Cabinet. The Channel 4 drama, Mo, depicts the Redcar MP's final years as she struggled to cope with her illness, the Northern Ireland peace process and the whispering campaign that she believed led to Peter Mandelson replacing her.
Friends of Mowlam and Mr Brown maintain that their feud dated back to the early 1990s, when they served together in Labour's trade and industry team, and sprang from their political styles and "personal chemistry".
Jon Norton, who died last year, claimed Mowlam impressed key bankers and financiers in her role as shadow City minister – but Mr Brown resented her success.
"He, who achieved everything through plodding hard work, could not cope with this charming woman succeeding by style and guile," Norton said in a newspaper article a year after his wife's death.
The Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle, who also worked on the shadow trade team, said the pair had fallen out over policy differences. He said yesterday: "It was typical Gordon: he didn't consult and he didn't tell people what he was doing. Mo and I wrote him a joint letter complaining about it. There was a tension between them. Gordon has a long memory – if you fall out with him it is usually for life."
Norton also said suspicion of Mr Brown's tactics lay behind Mowlam's decision to turn down the job of Health Secretary when she was shunted out of Northern Ireland. He said: "Health was a nightmare for a minister who was being suggested by some as a possible leadership contender when Blair went. Brown has always destroyed any possible challenger."
However, when Mowlam was dying in the summer of 2005, the flood of correspondence received by the couple included two lengthy messages from the Chancellor. Norton said. "I believe those letters were sincere. There was no political interest in writing them, unlike phone calls I had from the Prime Minister." Downing Street yesterday declined to comment on details of Mr Brown's letters.
'Mo' airs at 9pm today on Channel 4Reuse content