John Rentoul: Brown's praise for Blair was like Saddam thanking Bush for getting him out of a hole

One women's editor said she was appalled by his cynicism
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"I can't bear all this touchy-feely stuff," said Gordon Brown, many years ago. It was not clear what exactly he was talking about. He had just been asked, in a newspaper interview in November 1997, about New Labour's fondness for sound-bites. (How quaint such a question seems now, now that the idea of "spin" has seeped so deeply into the public consciousness.) "Of course I use sound-bites," he said. "The Bible is full of phrases like 'Blessed are the meek'. But they have to come from a genuine set of beliefs." He paused. "And I can't bear all this touchy-feely stuff."

He seemed to be taking exception to the way Tony Blair was always going on about his family to women's magazines. And there may have been a touch of indignation at the prurient interest of journalists in his relationship with Sarah Macaulay, now his wife. Yet his words seem at odds with his interview on Sky TV last week in which he spoke about the death of his 10-day-old daughter.

I would not say that I can't bear that kind of stuff. I feel for the Browns' sense of loss and think it is up to them how they express it in public. It is presumptuous to speculate whether there might be an element of political calculation in his decision to "open his heart", as they say in the tabloids. I was more struck by the blazing and incontrovertible insincerity of his comments on his partnership with the Prime Minister, saying he was his friend "and he will always be my friend". Even allowing for the fact that politics is organised hypocrisy, his assertion that "Tony Blair has been a wonderful leader for the Labour Party" was like hearing Saddam Hussein thank George Bush for getting him out of a bit of a hole.

It was not so much the sentiment, which was obviously implausible, but the timing. Brown should have been backing Blair "publicly and without qualification" for all of the past 12 years - which is what three-quarters of the public told YouGov last week that they wanted him to do while Blair remains Prime Minister. (A different opinion poll published the same day found that people want politicians to tell the truth, but you cannot have everything.) It is a bit late and unconvincing, a week after your supporters have forced Blair to put a new time limit on his tenure of office, to pretend to be best buddies with the finest peace-time prime minister since the introduction of universal male suffrage.

So let us leave the tears to one side - not least because there weren't any. (The word "tearful" in the reporting of it was the giveaway.) He blinked a bit, speaking quietly, briefly and with some dignity. Although I was surprised by the vehemence with which one Fleet Street women's editor told me she was "appalled" by Brown's cynical use of his private life. And it is worth acknowledging at least how Alan Johnson, now firmly established as Brown's only credible rival for No 10, dealt with the story of his daughter, who died aged 30 in childbirth. "He does not want to discuss what happened," noted one interviewer a few years ago.

The larger question is whether Brown's adopting a more "touchy-feely" style more generally, all smiling friends together, will work. But was his style really that much different from those few "personal" interviews he has given in the past? Some viewers gained an impression from the Sky interview or last weekend's BBC interview with Andrew Marr of someone trying to pretend to be something he was not. I thought, on the contrary, that he was as he ever was: awkward, because he is shy.

Some of his advisers say that he has softened since he became a father. Maybe he has in his private life, but we should worry about how he operates as a statesman. I understand that it was only recently that he refused to speak to one Labour MP, an ally, for two months. His friend's crime was to do the Prime Minister's bidding without checking it with the faction boss first.

This minor episode illustrates another important truth about Brown's style of politics, which is that the Brownites are by no means a monolithic force. There are mutterings already from within the Brown compound about the way some of them are kept away from the throne room by Ed Balls, the junior Treasury minister who risks becoming Brown's Peter Mandelson. Balls stirs resentment because, as one "Brownite" minister complained to me recently, "everything has to go through EB".

Which brings us back to the question of whether Brown, a 1980s Scottish Labour politician, can change his spots, as Charles Clarke put it, not as a father but as a politician. As a result of this month's coup against Blair, he has been forced to concede that he should face a leadership election and, more importantly, a fundamental debate about the future of the party. So did he welcome Alan Milburn's thoughtful speech on Thursday, proposing elected police chiefs, devolved social service budgets and tax reform? Not likely. At least his people did not react with the pantomime paranoid horror that greeted Stephen Byers' suggestion that inheritance tax should be abolished, as if "outrider" were the rudest word in the English language.

Did Brown welcome Patricia Hewitt's argument in the New Statesman that people who were not party members might be involved in the leadership contest, bringing in "people who used to support us or might do so in future"? Not yet.

The most wounding charge that Charles Clarke made in his one-person campaign to restore politicians' reputation for truth-telling was that Brown lacks confidence. It was a barb cleverly picked up by David Cameron, who last week called for a British foreign policy that had the "confidence" to separate from the US when necessary.

So the question is not whether the new touchy-feely Brown is genuine, but whether the Brown who last weekend spoke of his love of rugby - because it is "about team work" - is genuine. Is he really committed to open discussion, collective working and a Labour Party and government turned outwards to the people? Or is he the one-more-heave candidate, who wants to be prime minister for a bit before it all collapses to a hung parliament at the next election?

So I don't doubt the sincerity of Brown's public emoting. But it is beside the political point.