Monday 22 February 2010
Bruce Anderson: Bullying, tantrums and Brown
Anyone who can talk about values and behave like him deserves a prize for hypocrisy
Two major conclusions can be drawn from Andrew Rawnsley's book on Gordon Brown. The first, which might seem unexpected, is that Mr Brown should be pitied. Mr Rawnsley describes glimmers of self-knowledge, indeed cries of anguish, as the Prime Minister realises that he has spent 13 years brooding and plotting and bullying his way to a job which he simply cannot do. The second is that he simply cannot do it.
Any decent person will be enraged to read of Gordon Brown's bestial treatment of those who have the misfortune to work for him in No 10. The most demanding employer who ever lived would have difficulty in finding fault with the Downing Street staff. The switchboard and the garden girls (secretaries) are not just good. They are awe-inspiringly outstanding. They combine cheerfulness, spontaneous helpfulness and a level of efficiency that would impress an RSM in the Guards – and did impress Margaret Thatcher, which was never easy.
Her premiership was perpetually stressful. She was capable of venting some of that on others, but only if they could answer back. During her 11 and a half years in No 10, not only was she never rude to secretaries, drivers, messengers, or telephonists; she was always considerate.
That could not be said of Churchill. During the Second World War, some transport arrangement went awry. It was in no way the driver's fault. This did not save him from a prime ministerial rocketing. When Churchill had stumped off harrumping, Anthony Eden went over to console the driver. "Don't worry, Sir," came the reply: "After all, it's not everyone who can say they've been blown up by the Great Man in person." Eden's reply was heartfelt: "Don't you believe it.".
Churchill's lapses do not excuse Gordon Brown's chronic brutishness. Like Mrs Thatcher, Churchill could be impossible (see the Alanbrooke War Diaries). Like her, he achieved the impossible. However infuriating both leaders could be, those who served them knew that they were acolytes to greatness. It was the most exhilarating period of their working lives.
Not many people are saying that about Mr Brown. A blend of Heathcliff, Lear on the heath and Frankenstein's monster, his vile treatment of his officials should be kept constantly in mind, especially when he next prates on about his values and the decencies which he absorbed during his childhood in the manse. Anyone who can talk about values and behave like Gordon Brown deserves a Pulitzer Prize for hypocrisy. Criminals are serving prison sentences for less morally culpable behaviour.
Apropos of culpability, the Blairites are to blame. There is a parallel with Eden. During Churchill's last government, when Eden was the inevitable successor, a number of senior Tories knew that Anthony would cock it up. They did not know quite how; they did know that he would find a way. But they could not think of an alternative. For Eden, read Gordon Brown; for senior Tories in the early Fifties, read Blairites from 1997 onwards. Indeed, the comparison is unfair to Eden, who had served with distinction in the wartime government and who was never nearly as impossible as Mr Brown.
The Blairites knew that Gordon could not do the job. They had all witnessed the scenes which Andrew Rawnsley and others have described. An educationalist comes in to brief Tony Blair. Gordon Brown hears about this, and is angry. He is supposed to be in charge of the domestic agenda. So why is Tony Blair talking to educationalists? Who does he think he is: the Prime Minister?
A compromise is reached. The briefing will take place, but Mr Brown will be present, with Ed Balls. The educationalist starts talking, and so does Mr Brown, to Mr Balls. Taken aback, the visitor stops. Mr Blair looks embarrassed, and signals the chap to continue. He does; so do Messrs Brown and Balls. Was there ever a more demeaning scene in a prime minister's study?
So why did Tony Blair put up with behaviour that would be regarded as unacceptable in a nursery school? We know that he did occasionally think in terms of sacking Gordon Brown, but that he could never quite summon up the nerve to do so. Praising her deputy, Willie Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher said that every prime minister needed a Willie. It may be that Mr Blair needed a Balls. It may also be that Tony Blair lacked the courage to face Brown down because he was ultimately unconfident of his own political identity. Mr Brown never seemed to lack that certainty, even if it was based on sociopathic solipsism.
Yeats had the title for the Brown Premiership: The Circus Animals' Desertion. Jack Straw is by no means the worst Cabinet minister of the last 13 years. For most of the time, he has been a safe pair of hands, although when it came to the big issues, he usually lived up to his name. He has always seemed to be the personification of loyalty. Yet we learn from Mr Rawnsley that even he was conspiring against Gordon Brown. Mr Brown retains the affection of Ed Balls: judge the owner by his dog. The same is probably true of Shaun Woodward; no one else would have promoted him to the Cabinet. But who else in the Brown Cabinet respects or likes their PM? Read Andrew Rawnsley, and you will understand why.
Even so, the Tories must be careful in their response. Although the Rawnsley revelations could cause an implosion, the Cameron team would be unwise to count on this, or to rely on negative campaigning. To be fair to the Tories, there has not been much in the way of negativity thus far, yet that is bound to change as electioneering gains momentum.
The Queensberry rules have never applied to politics, but low blows require deftness and wit. In the 1992 election campaign, Chris Patten deployed both, at Neil Kinnock's expense. Mr Patten always got the tone right. That is important. Though most voters insist that they do not like it when politicians slag each other off, they do not mind it when they can have a good laugh. Nor do they respect the person whom they have been laughing at. The Tories should aim at gentle mockery, in which the gentleness disarms the listeners while the mockery sticks.
Gordon Brown deserves no gentleness. But he has now created his legacy. He is the first Prime Minister whose staff have complained to the national bullying hotline.
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