Matthew Norman: Gordon just needs a good night's sleep

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The Independent Online

As Ken Livingstone's defence to the charge of breakfast boozing reminded us a few weeks ago, the mandatory yardstick for any politician in trouble is always Winston Churchill. We'll come to Winnie in good time, but the first point of reference I wish to explore in regard to Gordon Brown's current plight is a more recent Prime Minister. It is, in fact, Harriet Jones.

Apologies to anyone in no need of the crash course, but the sovereign cause of inclusivity demands that we look after readers with little appetite for high culture. So here, for the Philistines among you, is a precis of her meteoric rise and fall. On the back of the calm courage she showed in helping the Doctor and Rose defeat Downing Street interlopers the Slitheen, a family of intergalactic asset-strippers most fondly remembered for their flatulence, Ms Jones (the magnificent Penelope Wilton) rose swiftly from backbench non-entity to PM. For a while, much like Gordon himself once, she presided over an economic "golden age".

And then, on Christmas Day 2005, everything changed when a piratical alien race called the Sycorax invaded. No sooner had the Doctor outfoxed them and watched their vessel clear the atmosphere than Ms Jones ordered it destroyed by a fearsome new weapon. To this day my 10-year-old son and I passionately debate her decision. He strongly argues that Jones should have accepted the Sycorax promise – sworn on the blood of their species – to leave the Earth well alone in perpetuity. Myself, I'm convinced that the treacherous buggers would have quickly come back to annihilate us (but then I'd have sunk the Belgrano), so she had no choice.

The Doctor took my son's line, and was so disgusted by her brutality that he threatened to end her premiership with six words. "Even you couldn't do that," she challenged him. But he could and he did. "Don't you think she looks tired?" he whispered to an aide, and once this viral observation had entered the media bloodstream she was done for.

If life cares to imitate the art of Russell T Davies, Gordon Brown will soon be gone too, because there's no need to ask whether he looks tired. He looks half-dead, and no wonder when Northern Rock has persuaded him to cut his sleep ration from its previous apex of four nightly hours to as little as two. After taking the decision to nationalise on Sunday, Gordon reportedly dozed off at about 3am and rose at 5am to indulge his one hobby of bombarding ministers and officials with neurotic phonecalls.

Many things about this are not good, the most obvious being that nobody, however granite their constitution, functions properly on such miserly amounts of rest. This is why, like all self-respecting torturers, the Syrian sweethearts to whom the CIA outsources its work use sleep-deprivation to break resistance.

I have just gone two nights with very little sleep, thanks to the latest Democratic primaries and their aftermath, and as you'll have divined from the quality of this prose I don't know whether I'm Chemical Ali or Chemical Sally. The typing is almost worse than the thinking, the pre-spell check version of this drivel hinting broadly at a hard-fought play-off between Susan Hampshire and Michael Heseltine for the 2008 title of Dslyxiec's Desyelcix.

That's after two nights. Almost eight months after Gordon moved next door and embarked on his insanely insomniac regimen, the one saving grace is that he has a chauffeur; because if he drove himself in this state and caused a fatal crash, he'd be banged up for manslaughter. Without wishing to travel too far down the hackneyed highway of nuclear launch codes, we might wonder why the principle of criminal negligence routinely applied to sleep-deprived motorists doesn't stretch to cover a man attempting to steer a nation.

Admittedly the recent Anglo-American champions of the more relaxed approach to governing don't do much for my argument. President Bush works each day for about as long as Gordon sleeps, and his one-time colonic houseguest Mr Tony Blair had to be woken, not long after midnight, to be told that British troops had gone into action in Iraq. But somewhere between the TBs and the GBs lies a happy medium, could Gordon only locate it before it's too late.

That we are watching a personal tragedy unfold in the slowest and most poignant of motion has been clear since that cataclysmic October week when he first went to Basra to flam up troop withdrawal figures, and then choked himself out of calling the election. If Northern Rock has solidified the perception that he's a natural-born loser (and it has), worse is to come, and not just from the economy. David Cameron is no Barack Obama, but when the wave of appetite for political change crosses the Atlantic he will surf it cutely enough.

Gordon must know all this. He may be deluded about his indispensability so far as micro-managing everything, but he isn't a shallow or foolish man. He must understand that his terminal caution allied to those MacMillanite events have rendered him a hapless, hopeless hybrid (there's another thing about lack of sleep; it makes you alliterate like a halfwit) of Eden, Callaghan and Major; and that he is doomed to challenge that trio for history's accolade as post-war Britain's top-ranked political nebbish.

Gruesome as that realisation must be, the futile quest to escape this fate is an abysmal reason to deny himself adequate sleep. He may not have a life outside politics now – if only he did – but he will have to build one soon enough, and from the sallow, waxen complexion and the haunted, deranged aspect to his face that no amount of slap can disguise, he is jeopardising its quality by compromising his immune system and sending an embossed, gilt-edged invitation to Mr Breakdown.

Many believe that, even more than the whisky and a latent tendency towards monomania, it was the lack of sleep that sent Mrs Thatcher as doolally as she was by the time of the Poll Tax. And she was on five hours a night. As for Winston Churchill, not only did he have that gift for cat-napping, but throughout his staggering career he regularly took holidays, painting on the Riviera or brooding and bricklaying at Chartwell, for months on end.

And Gordon? Well, all he wanted for Christmas, he sheepishly said at PMQs back in December, was a solitary day off. In the unlikely event that he took one, he probably spent most of it pulling crackers with his red boxes. If only he knew, as we culture vultures know, that Christmas Day is for resting, snoozing, and above all watching Doctor Who. That's how you learn about the extreme danger posed to a Prime Minister by looking exhausted to the point of sickness.

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