Tears, jokes and the humanising of Gordon Brown

It once seemed mission impossible, but his advisers (and his wife) have apparently pulled it off. TV viewers can judge tonight

To his wife, Sarah, he is "DH" – dear husband – while his friend Piers Morgan attempts to portray him as a brooding, but romantic, Mr Darcy. To some former Downing Street staffers, he is a foul-tempered monster who, according to ex-Labour spin doctor Lance Price's new book, "is psychologically and emotionally incapable of leadership of any kind".

These descriptions of Gordon Brown were all offered in the past week, and are all variations on old themes. Which is more accurate is a matter of debate. What is clear, as The Independent on Sunday's poll shows today, is that more voters than, say, a year ago, believe the Prime Minister has a "warm human side". Fifty per cent of people agree with this statement, while 43 per cent disagree. Among women, the figure is higher: 55 per cent agree. Even 38 per cent of Conservative voters believe he is warm.

Aides describe his TV interview with Morgan, broadcast on ITV today, in which he cries over the death of his daughter Jennifer, as a "watershed moment" for the normally private PM. While the tears are too much for some, Mr Brown's appearance is the culmination of a project to "humanise" him, and the poll figures show it is working.

In part, Mr Brown's standing has improved because of his own actions. His jokes, for example, have become funny. Last month, at the Fabian Society conference, Mr Brown cracked an apparently off-the-cuff and self-deprecating joke that even he couldn't remember the five tests on the euro.

But the project would not have worked without the help of Mrs Brown and two of British politics' grand masters of communication and spin: Alastair Campbell and Lord Mandelson.

It was Mrs Brown who persuaded her husband to appear on Morgan's Life Stories, an hour-long interview in front of a studio audience – although both Mr Campbell and the Secretary of State for Business were fully behind the move, Morgan revealed yesterday. The journalist told the IoS: "I had asked him three or four times and he'd said no, but then they went away at Christmas and he and Sarah talked about it and about other things they might do in the run-up to the election, and after that he said yes."

Members of the audience were asked to come up with words to describe the Prime Minister, he said. They came up with three very unflattering labels: grumpy, knackered and plonker, and a surprising one: delectable. Morgan added: "When I put the word 'plonker' to him, he answered 'well, you'd know about that Piers'."

Mrs Brown's well-documented ability to put a soft gloss on her husband's "grumpy" exterior was enhanced last week when she spent an hour "chatting" on the Mumsnet website, the 2010 election equivalent of GMTV and This Morning interviews of 1997.

The project to humanise Mr Brown has developed since he became PM in July 2007, but was stepped up when Lord Mandelson returned to the Cabinet and Mr Campbell became more involved. The departure last April of Damian McBride, the No 10 adviser, created less divisive press briefings, and the atmosphere inside Downing Street became less toxic. When things get tense, Lord Mandelson lightens the mood by "taking the mickey" out of Mr Brown.

A turning point came in November, when The Sun attacked Mr Brown over his misspelt letter to Jacqui Janes, the mother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan. The public's sympathy was with the PM, with just two dozen out of around 1,000 messages sent to No 10 critical of him.

Among the softer revelations last week is Mr Brown's appetite for fruit. In an echo of the revelation that Margaret Thatcher ate four eggs a day when she was campaigning for the 1979 election, we learnt that Mr Brown eats nine bananas a day. But is the public being fed an inaccurate image of the PM?

No 10 aides deny recent newspaper reports that Mr Brown hit a male official, and insiders claim that he only gets angry when there is "justification" and it is "never personal". Yet there is nevertheless apprehension inside Downing Street at the forthcoming publication of The End of the Party by Andrew Rawnsley, which is rumoured to detail incidents of Mr Brown's foul temper. Mr Brown was, it is understood, furious when, during a visit to Washington last summer, it was reported that President Barack Obama had snubbed him.

No 10 insiders claim Mr Brown is best when he is authentic – citing Lord Mandelson's quote last month that "there's no airbrushing Gordon Brown like David Cameron". One insider said: "If we told him to emote, well, it doesn't work like that. That's not who he is."

But was the PM really being true to himself when he bared his soul to Morgan? Few who watch his red-rimmed eyes today will fail to be moved. Yet the timing, weeks before what will be a bitterly fought election campaign, is unsettling.

Mr Brown has an election to fight, and he is up against a Tory leader whom voters see as an emotionally intelligent, if slick, politician. Mr Cameron's wife, Samantha, may soon follow Sarah Brown on to Mumsnet. Just like the leaders' election TV debates, today's interview is high risk for Mr Brown, but his friends believe it is a risk worth taking.

The public mood: Could it be The Sun wot wins it for Labour?

When The Sun deserted Labour on the eve of Gordon Brown's party conference speech last September, it was apparent confirmation that the party was a hopeless cause. If the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper, famous for backing winners, was defecting to the Conservatives, surely it was all over. But in November, when The Sun turned nasty over Mr Brown's misspelt letter to a grieving war mother, it was the newspaper that was out of tune with public sentiment. Since then, Labour has narrowed the gap in the polls to the point where a hung Parliament could be on the cards. By contrast, David Cameron has suffered setbacks, with the Tories confused over fiscal policy. This can only be a coincidence and chances of an outright Labour victory are slim. But if the party does defy all expectations and triumphs this spring, Mr Brown could rightly ask: "Was it The Sun wot won it?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea