When I was a Labour Party press officer a quarter of a century ago, I used to visit a cramped office in the House of Commons shared by two junior MPs, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Of the two, the one who was the warmer personality and easier to work with, in my experience, was Mr Brown.
He was a driven man even then, never satisfied with results. He once called a press conference which attracted interest from all the upmarket newspapers, which I thought was quite an achievement for an opposition MP only recently arrived in the Commons. But as the journalists dispersed, Mr Brown was in near despair. Why were there no television cameras? Where were the tabloids?
In those days, this obsessive wish for everything to be just right was a strength that made him a man obviously going places. When I was off to see him for the first time, in 1986, Peter Mandelson told me: "You are going to meet a future Labour Prime Minister."
Now, under pressure of high office, that same quality has become a weakness. There are too many stories like the ones related in the new book by the political commentator Andrew Rawnsley for them all to be dismissed as "malicious" and "totally without foundation", as the Prime Minister's official spokesman did yesterday.
In an interview with yesterday's Independent on Sunday, Mr Brown's main point was to deny something which he had been misled into thinking the book alleged, namely, that he had hit someone. Rawnsley claims that an adviser once feared a furious Mr Brown was about to hit him, but there is a world of difference between looking angry enough to strike and actually doing it.
What comes across from the Rawnsley account – which, I suspect, is much closer to the truth than Downing Street would have us believe – is that this is a Prime Minister with a very loud bark, and less of a bite. We read of him seizing an adviser by the lapels and shouting in his face, but the next day, the same adviser still has a job. If that is a "reign of terror", to quote a phrase in common use yesterday, I wonder what phrase would sum up the management techniques of some newspaper proprietors and editors, past and present.
More disturbing than the descriptions of the Prime Minister losing his cool is the short-term tactical thinking that threatens to lead to his destruction. A gross example is Downing Street's reaction when the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, sensibly warned, in summer 2008, that the recession was going to be profound and long-lasting.
According to Rawnsley, the "attack dogs" Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride "were unleashed to savage the Chancellor". Mr Whelan at least had the excuse that he was freelancer, employed by a trade union. Mr McBride, who was a paid Downing Street adviser, "told every journalist who had access to a pencil that Alistair's interview was a disaster".
All this because Mr Darling's remark threatened to spoil the relaunch that Mr Brown was planning. Even in the depth of recession, the Prime Minister's thoughts were seemingly on the tactics that would get him through the next few weeks.
Yet when faced with a real crisis, not of his own making, Mr Brown showed his mettle. On the great bank bailout, Rawnsley wrote, "One very senior civil servant, in many ways a sceptic about Gordon Brown's leadership skills, gives him much of the credit for bold action in this crisis."
He quotes the civil servant as saying: "Gordon was prepared to say, 'We need to bail them out' despite the political risks. He took the lead, then allowed Alistair to do it."Reuse content