The public should know the full truth about the character of Gordon Brown:- The prime minister's conduct in office has long been the subject of gossip. The real story needed to be told says Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer, Sunday 21 February 2010
In the course of three years spent interviewing witnesses for the writing of The End of the Party, both friends and foes of Gordon Brown have asked how I would handle what one veteran Labour figure delicately called "the character question". To some of his enemies – and by enemies I mean people within his own party – the prime minister's conduct towards colleagues and staff has at times been so appalling that it raises a question mark about his fitness to hold his great office. To admirers, who include people on his staff at whom he has unleashed his furies, those volcanic rages are a price worth paying for his other qualities as a leader.
Character was an unavoidable subject of inquiry for a book which charts Labour's second and third terms in office. It clearly matters how a leader works – or cannot work – with his colleagues; whether he responds to crises and setbacks calmly or in a hysterical fashion; and how he treats his staff. Exploring the premierships of Blair and Brown has been a constant reminder, whether the subject was 9/11, the Iraq War, the financial crisis or the parliamentary expenses scandal, that the character of the men at Number 10 has had a profound effect on how we have been governed....
Gordon Brown himself has made an issue of his character. He has repeatedly asked for votes as a personal endorsement on the grounds that he is the right leader for the hour. At the 2007 Labour conference, just before his early honeymoon imploded in the debacle of the phantom election, he was marketed under the slogan: "Not flash – just Gordon." At the 2008 conference, held in the midst of the meltdown in the financial markets, he told the country that it was "no time for a novice", again making his own character the defining issue.
His recent appearance on ITV's Life Stories, where he made an uncomfortable attempt to engage in what he had previously disdained as "the politics of celebrity", was a conscious effort by Number 10 to project his personality in a way that might make it more appealing to voters.
"I know that I'm not perfect," he told a pre-election rally in Coventry yesterday. "But I know where I come from. I know what I stand for" – asking to be re-elected for his values. Having himself elevated character as an issue, the voters have the right to be acquainted with every dimension of that character.
Given the controversy likely to be generated by the extracts from The End of the Party that we publish today, I think I owe it to readers of the Observer to say something about how the book was written and to describe the calibre of the witnesses who have contributed to the account. The book draws on multiple sources. The text is informed by the thousands of confidential conversations that I have had with the principal figures of New Labour and many other pivotal players over some two decades. Another source is the on-camera interviews that I have recorded for a series of documentaries about the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. These are supplemented by a very large number of interviews conducted specifically for the book. In all, more than 500 witnesses have contributed.
The literary output of New Labour's dramatis personae, as we know from some of the memoirs and diaries already published by Alastair Campbell, Cherie Blair and the Prescotts among others, is written from single and self-serving perspectives. At best, they offer only partial and self-justifying accounts. They often seek to shade, sanitise or conceal. The unpartisan writer has the advantage of being able to seek answers from a large array of witnesses and to ask any question to tease out the truth about how we have been ruled.
As I have revisited the seminal episodes in this government's life, I have found that neither the claims made for themselves nor daily media coverage have told anything like the full story.
In a way which wasn't possible when I wrote Servants of the People in 2000, I have been able to put many more of these witnesses to history on the record. I have been taken aback by the candour with which so many of them are now prepared to speak. These witnesses include virtually everyone who has sat in the cabinet over the New Labour years as well as the most senior aides to both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. I have conducted extensive interviews with military figures, diplomats, intelligence officials and civil servants at the most senior level. These include Robin Butler, Richard Wilson and Andrew Turnbull, successive cabinet secretaries of the New Labour years. Those witnesses who can be identified and thanked for their enormous help, and a very large number can be, are listed in the book.
It remains the case, though, that some interviewees, especially serving senior civil servants and Number 10 aides, are often only willing to be frank if they are interviewed wholly or partially off the record.
It is inevitable that his critics and opponents will seize on the startling revelations about Gordon Brown's conduct towards cabinet colleagues and Number 10 staff. This issue has been a constant subject of gossip and conjecture at Westminster, around Whitehall and in the media. The fear and in some cases loathing of the prime minister among some colleagues is part of the explanation for why there have been no fewer than three attempts to execute coups to oust him from Number 10. I approached this subject acutely aware that a rumour is not the same as a fact. I set a rule that I would not publish anything about an episode involving abusive behaviour unless I had secured utterly reliable accounts. Some incidents which came to my attention have been excluded even when I was convinced they were true because I was not quite satisfied with the evidence for them. Investigation of other incidents secured eyewitness accounts from impeccable sources of shocking episodes, some of which are included in today's extract. Only once I was absolutely satisfied about the veracity of a story did it go in the book. The sources are 24 carat.
I won't be at all surprised if some of the episodes are nevertheless denied – or "furiously denied" as political reporters now commonly describe the response from Number 10 to revelations which are damaging to the prime minister. Journalists are never popular with the powerful when we discover uncomfortable truths about the people who govern us. Many of the incidents and arguments first exposed in Servants of the People were "furiously denied" when that book was published – only later to be confirmed by the release of official papers, in subsequent interviews and in the memoirs and diaries of Labour people themselves.
No one now tries to sustain the pretence, as they did then, that there were not colossal and toxic rows between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Even Mr Brown is now half-admitting to it. I recall people being surprised – and some frankly disbelieving – when Servants of the People recounted how many expletives came out of the mouths of both Mr Blair and Mr Brown when they were under stress or angry with each other. Since then, we have had plenty of confirmatory evidence that the air in Number 10 does often turn blue.
I anticipate that there will be some who will say that it is somehow inappropriate to publish this book so close to the moment when the country will decide on its next government at a general election. On the contrary, there is surely no more appropriate time to assess New Labour's record in office and portray the men who have wielded that power as they truly are. It's not in my job description to serve the interests of any political party. I have been fiercely critical of the Tories and will continue to be so when they deserve it. I'm finishing a TV documentary about the Conservative leader which is as remote as possible from being a hagiography of David Cameron.
It is a journalist's duty to both himself and to his readers to be unflinchingly truthful about the flaws of the powerful. It is equally an obligation to give credit where it is due. The book strives to offer a balanced account of Labour's time in office, highlighting the achievements as well as exploring the failures. In today's serialisation, you can also sample part of the account of the financial crisis during which Gordon Brown displayed some of his positive attributes as a leader. In October 2008, even those cabinet colleagues and civil servants who were otherwise in utter despair about the prime minister were admiring of the boldness and imagination with which he reacted to the crisis by producing a blueprint for saving the financial system which was broadly copied around the world.
The Good Gordon and the Bad Brown co-exist in the clever, proud, sensitive, raging, tearful, tormented, complex man who has ruled Britain for nearly three years and now asks for his tenure to be extended for another five. Before they make their choice, the public deserves to be fully acquainted with both Browns.
This article appeared on p37 of the Main section section of the Observer on Sunday 21 February 2010.