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Monday, February 22, 2010 

The end of the bullying party?

Probably the most fascinating side detail, at least to me, about the extracts from Andrew Rawnsley's book serialised in yesterday's Observer, is that this is the work of a man who can be described as more than sympathetic towards the Labour party, including Gordon Brown himself. It is testament to his journalistic nous that he doesn't appeared to have let this colour his chronicling of Labour in power since 2001 in the slightest; his portrait of Gordon Brown and his faintly terrifying moments of fury, both towards himself and to his staff is absolutely unflinching in its lucidity, and brilliantly written. Without wanting to come over all order of the brown nose, I'd suggest, based just on this one extract, that it's likely to be the best insider's account of government in years and one as a devoted politics nerd that I can't wait to read in full.

All that is rather by the by though, considering the damage that Rawnsley's account of Brown's behaviour is likely to do, even if few voters actually read it first-hand. Much as we already knew that Brown had a volcanic temper, and was prone to bouts of introspection and that awful word, dithering, reading just how he's reacted to certain news and treated those around him in such detail feels almost voyeuristic, such is the quality of the sources and the fly-on-the-wall nature of the extracts. The one allegation which led the news bulletins and supposed "spoilers" is the one which hasn't actually appeared, at least so far: Rawnsley doesn't make any claim that Brown has actually hit someone, as the prime minister himself denied on Channel 4 News on Saturday, although that might be one of the stories which Rawnsley was unable to satisfy himself was wholly accurate, as he details in his "justification" of releasing the account now. If anything though, some of the stuff which does feature is just as damaging: there have been claims in the past that he threw mobile phones and destroyed photocopiers, but turfing a secretary who wasn't typing fast enough out of her chair and doing it himself most certainly rivals any of that. Most, if not all prime ministers have at some stage become paranoid and hunkered down, convinced that there are individuals out to get them, but few are likely to have grabbed the lapels of the person informing them of the latest bad news and scream it in their faces.

Amid all this, there was also a prime minister portrayed who still appears admirable: a passionate, deeply committed individual who has despite the depths to which he has sunk during the last three years still gotten crucial decisions right, such as the bailing out of the banks, the bringing back of Peter Mandelson despite years of something close to all out war between the two, and who is by no means an irredeemable, let alone terrible holder of the ultimate office of state. This makes the response from Downing Street to the revelations all the more risible, if not actively counter-productive: to deny almost everything and also to rubbish Rawnsley himself. These are, after all, most likely the very same people that contributed to the book; Harriet Harman certainly has, and she was one of the very first to come out and ridicule Rawnsley and question his sources. Brown's peremptory efforts at admitting that he gets angry and shouts and Mandelson's attempt at putting Brown's occasional fury into context were what the whole operation should have been based upon: instead the briefers and spinners have been out in force, and Sir Gus O'Donnell has completely denied, although after a few abortive attempts, that he talked to Brown about his behaviour to the junior staff.

A far better response would have to been to admit that while under extreme pressure, Brown had sometimes acted in a fashion that was both beneath him and that he deeply regretted, and that he had since modified his behaviour. That might, just might, have helped somewhat to close it down. David Cameron would have likely made hay with it on Wednesday, and compared Brown's character with his own, despite his acting as the bag man of an apparently far worse bully while working in PR for Carlton, but the story would have soon lost its lustre. Instead we've had Labour plumbing its usual depths, with claims of Tory plotting, as if Rawnsley was somehow part of a conspiracy dedicated to further damaging Gordon Brown, as well as hysterical claims from the likes of John Prescott that it's all lies. Admittedly, the ludicrous and unfortunately named Christine Pratt, by claiming that staff in Number 10 had phoned her "National Bullying Helpline" may have helped to somewhat substantiate the former claim, but it seems far more likely that it's Pratt trying and succeeding admirably in advertising her business, even if it is ostensibly a charity, rather than some sort of Tory black operation. In any event, her breaching of the standard definition of client confidentiality and the resignation of all three of the charity's patrons as a result has undermined her intervention immensely.

Equally daft were the calls from both Cameron and Nick Clegg for some sort of investigation into Brown's behaviour, as if one was either needed or would ever be authorised. You sometimes get the impression that politicians will call for an inquiry into everything other than the few incidents which genuinely require one, and in doing so reduce the chances of one being set-up in the future. Cameron is again equally hypocritical on this front in any event: his own spin doctor Andy Coulson has not just been accused of bullying, but found by an employment tribunal to have been primarily responsible for the treatment meted out to Matt Driscoll, who was sacked while off work with stress-related depression, a depression brought on by the behaviour of Coulson.

Key as always will be whether this will actually change the way someone will vote, and it naturally comes just as the polls are narrowing, although again that's usual this close to an election. Much as you'd like to think that this won't change a thing, it probably will influence the votes of a few, just as Brown's saccharine, false "opening up" to Piers Morgan likely did. These are after all the two sides there are to Brown: the deeply private, introverted man who blames himself more than anyone else for the problems which befall him, even as he attacks others, and the warm, approachable and pleasant person which some have seen him and which he tries to increasingly bring out for the cameras. It was right for Rawnsley to confirm the rumours, but equally allowances should be made for Brown's behaviour, unacceptable as it was. The thing the Tories should remember before focusing on this is that the last time Brown's character was brought into question, during the Jacqui Janes debacle, it exploded in the Sun's face. History could well repeat itself.

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