Christina Patterson: An ex-prime minister who might just have found his true calling

The Saturday Column
Click to follow

On Tuesday night, a hall full of students cheered a politician. The students were at LSE and much hairier than students used to be – so hairy, in fact, that I felt like marching round with nail scissors and giving them a little tidy up. The politician didn't need a tidy up. He was clean-shaven, in a smart suit. His name was Gordon Brown.

It's possible that the students had spent all day fashioning little effigies of Nick Clegg to burn, or stick pins into, and that they were just so pleased to see a politician who wasn't younger-looking than them, that they couldn't help cheering in relief. But the cheers didn't sound like relief. They sounded like something that students often demand, but which you can't actually demand, any more than you can demand love. The cheers sounded like respect.

Brown's face lit up at the sound of them, as well it might after years of being publicly disembowelled in the media, and then weeks, which must have felt like years, in which every word, every frown, every not-switched-off microphone, was weighed in a balance and found wanting. There weren't too many cheers when he was beached in Downing Street while the youthful would-be effigy double dealt and double crossed. There weren't too many cheers when he left it either, though the two little boys skipping along beside him warmed the hitherto rather cool cockles of the nation's heart. The boys, whose bath-time squabbles had failed to impress an electorate, were a weirdly shocking reminder that the figures we all but crucify on a daily basis are real people, with real feelings and real hearts.

"My four-year-old," said Brown at the beginning of a talk that brought him a standing ovation, "said the other day, 'I want to be a teacher, and a builder and a dad, but you're just a dad'." He said it with all the warmth he had failed to bring to his comments about the problems of immigration, or the aspirations of Middle England, or even the bath-time squabbles. Being "just a dad", it was clear, suited him very well. Being "just a dad" enabled him to be all the things that, on radio and telly, he never quite managed. It enabled him, in fact, to be funny, passionate – and sweet.

The Gordon Brown model of full-time fatherhood is clearly a bit like the Mumsnet model of full-time motherhood, in which you combine school runs and bedtime stories with a bit of blogging about child-friendly chalets in Chamonix or knocking off a few hundred pages on the global economic crisis. It's the kind of parenting, like a Mumsnet mother's, too, where you have to go to an awful lot of coffee mornings, and tea parties, and meetings, though the coffee mornings, and tea parties, and meetings aren't with "mums" (a word which always gives me a shiver of embarrassment, unless it's mine) or the teachers of your budding Einsteins, or to have nice chats with your book group about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. They're with your constituents and some of them would make a potato peel pie society seem more thrilling than a kitchen walk-through with Obama.

Who, as it happens, popped up. Obama, said Brown, "moved from being a community organiser to a politician". Brown was doing things the other way round. Helped by a wife who's an extremely canny operator, and who has well over a million followers on Twitter (some of us have about three and can never think of anything much to tweet) and who recently invited her husband to take over some of her tweets, which meant that for a while a tiny corner of the foreign field that is for ever Twitter veered off Gillian McKeith and on to Ang San Suu Kyi, and who will, according to her husband, sell 99 per cent of the books emerging from the Brown household, he's planning a campaign of mass action. As he wrote in yesterday's Independent, he's trying to persuade people to sign a petition "demanding" that world leaders "deliver a global plan for jobs and justice".

I hope it works. I hope that world leaders, who quite often seem a bit more keen on things like getting re-elected than things like global justice, take more notice of global internet campaigns championed by former prime ministers than current prime ministers and their deputies do of students throwing paint at a royal Rolls-Royce. I'm not sure they will, but then, unlike the smiley Scot who could, on Tuesday night, almost have confounded Wodehouse by being confused with a ray of sunshine, I'm not sure that I could describe myself as an optimist. But I'd swear on a copy of Beyond the Crash (available, no doubt, on Twitter) that Gordon Brown will be a hell of a lot happier as a community organiser than a politician.

As a community organiser, you can say what you think. You can, for example, say that you think people who earn more than 150 grand should pay a bit more tax instead of having to pretend that the people you meet in shopping centres in Rochdale or Milton Keynes are all about to earn 150 grand, too. You can say that bank bonuses are an affront to the 99.9 per cent of the population that doesn't get them, without the banks all flouncing off in a strop. You can even say that bigots are bigots.

If you're the kind of person who thinks that some things – like helping people who are poor – are very, very important, then you might have trouble pretending, on occasion, that they aren't. You might fear that you'll say the wrong thing and end up sounding wooden. You might find that this makes you bad-tempered and unhappy.

Luckily, we have a Prime Minister who doesn't have trouble with any of this. He's charming. He's coherent. He's witty. He's polite. I'm just not absolutely sure he believes in anything at all.

The financial future's orange (and wobbly)

it's easy enough, when the nights draw in, and the burning issue of each day is the location of the nearest, and hottest, radiator, to put on a pound or two, and one can only look at the increasingly porky Chancellor of the Exchequer and sympathise – and laugh. The easy assumption would be that those extra tyres and chins are posh City banquets metamorphosed into adipose tissue. Too many lunches, in other words, with too many fat cats. That assumption would, apparently, be wrong. The Chancellor, according to a civil servant at the Treasury, has a new-found addiction to orange jelly.

If George Osborne, who was called Gideon until he was 13, felt like joining the 90,000 people who have changed their name this year, including an NHS call operator who changed his from David Lennox to Her Majesty the Queen and a man from Lowestoft who changed his from John Denton to Willy Wonka, he might gain courage from a Jelly Tot fanatic in Manchester who changed hers from Jane Nash to Miss Jelly St Tots.

It might not persuade those American diplomats who, according to diplomatic cables released on WikiLeaks, were told that Osborne's "high-pitched delivery" made him appear too much of a "lightweight" to give an emergency statement at the height of the financial crisis (an accusation he's been taking touchingly seriously on both fronts) but it might, like the leaked discovery of his wobbly tea-time treat, offer some rare good cheer at a time of growing gloom.

Dark dealings with doughnuts and the FBI

Like a child who has OD'd on E110 (a chemical found, funnily enough, in orange jelly), I couldn't help lapping up a story about a supposed Muslim extremist earlier this week. There are so many delicious details that it's hard to know where to start. It was in California, and not just California, but Orange County! It involved meetings in doughnut shops! It also involved a convicted criminal who was sent into a mosque by the FBI to shop Muslim extremists and who was himself turned into the police by members of the mosque because his talk of "jihad" was scaring them to death.

It sounded uncannily like the story about the young man in Portland, Oregon, who was given bomb-making equipment by the FBI, encouraged to plant a (dummy) explosive device at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony last month, and arrested when he did. I'm no expert in intelligence gathering (though I feel, after the past 10 days, that I could probably do a PhD in American diplomatic gossip), but I can't help thinking that the best way of fighting a "war on terror" probably isn't to whip it up where it didn't actually exist.