Matthew Norman: The brooding, tortured soul of Gordon Brown

He retains his gift, as in the election that never was, for plucking defeat from the oesophagus of victory

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The Independent Online

On a Leveson Monday that should have been dominated by the aftermath of a medical diagnosis, but wasn't, the twin mantras of TV drama's greatest diagnostician came flooding to mind. It seems everybody lies, as Hugh Laurie's Gregory House MD says of a patient at least once an episode, and nobody changes.

Gordon Brown certainly hasn't changed. His session with Robert Jay QC revealed that he remains the most incompetent dissembler in Britain, which is one of the less unendearing things about him. Most top-rank politicians master the art of lying imperceptibly, as the glib fluency of George Osborne's testimony suggested. As for another recent witness, a certain Mr Tony Blair would beat the polygraph every time with the knickerless insouciance of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Gordon might well send the needle off the scale and you wouldn't even need the electrodes. The old brute telegraphs his renditions of the facts with such clunking blatancy that they feel less like wilful attempts to deceive than an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

His preferred method, often noted during his tenure as PM, is to introduce a whopper with a reference to his father, the presbyterian minister whose example he feels such transparent shame at failing to match. By that analysis, in trotting out the paternal paean, he ridiculed his denial of making that declaration-of-war phonecall to Rupert Murdoch. The other subconscious admission to dissembling was familiar from poker rather than pop psychology. When denying all knowledge of his aides briefing against Mr Blair, his left hand extended along the table. Pushing your chips in with the weaker hand is a classic poker tell that you're bluffing, though, in this case, one needed no visual confirmation. As futility goes, here, seemingly, was the Leveson equivalent of the philanderer in the Shaggy song insisting to the girlfriend who finds him in flagrante with the next door neighbour: "It wasn't me."

Monday should have been a triumphant day for Gordon as he avenged himself on The Sun, Rebekah Brooks and Murdoch for revealing his baby's diagnosis of cystic fibrosis in what he convincingly claimed was without his and Sarah's permission. The paper's subsequent report, which insisted that "NHS Fife said yesterday there was 'no inappropriate access' to Fraser's medical records", reminds us that it, too, apparently, remains unashamed to distort the truth, in its owner's image. Contrast that with this quote in its sister title The Times, from the chief executive of NHS Fife: "We now accept that it is highly likely that, sometime in 2006, a member of staff in NHS Fife spoke, without authorisation, about the medical condition of Mr Brown's son, Fraser."

Yet no one was talking yesterday about this wickedly callous invasion of the Brown's privacy at a doubly horrific moment for parents who had already buried a newborn daughter, or even about how utterly laughable Mr Osborne's claim to have closely interrogated Andy Coulson about phone-hacking appeared. All the attention was on Gordon's sub-Comical Ali drivel, thereby illustrating another way in which he is unchanged. He retains that uncanny gift, as pioneered with the 2007 election that never was, for plucking defeat from the oesophagus of victory.

Reviewing his Leveson turn, I feel a resurgence of the old poignancy about someone who might – with a less tortured, self-flagellating personality, and had events taken a different course – have been a great man. Object of scorn and loathing though he is, some regard him as precisely that. He isn't alone in thinking he saved the world from financial apocalypse in 2008. The American Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman, whose withering dismissal of the austerity fetish championed by Mr Osborne as suicidal lunacy is rapidly becoming the global consensus, suspects he saved the world, too.

The fatal problem with judging bold preemptive action is the impossibility of knowing how things would have panned out in its absence, which is why politicians prefer the ostrich position. The Doctor Who episode "Turn Left" dwells on the horror that would have consumed Earth had the Doctor been killed, but in the real world we have no access to alternate timelines. Even so, it is a safe bet that had Gordon not set an example to dithering world leaders by recapitalising the banks and plumping decisively for fiscal stimulus, Armageddon would have arrived years ago. If his previous relaxation of fiscal discipline and failure to regulate the banks helped set the inferno, he was quite the Red Adair once it was lit.

Although he currently gets no more credit for that than for keeping Britain out of the euro, history may well come to regard him as an economic Churchill... as inspired a wartime leader, in other words, as he was abysmal in (comparative) peacetime. In the midst of this endless, apparently doomed rearguard to save the southern European eurozone countries, catastrophe seems close at hand again. Looking at the Chancellor and his predecessor but one on Tuesday, listening to the lies and their contrasting styles of telling them, it was the Caliban who invokes his father when shamed by his own reflection, however lavishly flawed, who seemed infinitely the larger and more trustworthy figure. Come on now, regardless of personal taste, be honest. Given the option between Osborne and Brown at the helm during economic warfare, which would you choose?