Of all the secrets to emerge from 10 Downing Street over the years, few have been as bizarre or unlikely as the claim that "three or four" of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's staff have called a bullying hot line to complain about his behaviour.
The Prime Minister's Office is known as a high-pressure place where voices are raised, lapels grabbed, phones slammed and documents thrown - all under the helm of a notoriously taciturn and tightly wound man.
But when Christine Pratt, the head of Britain's National Bullying Helpline, called the BBC on Sunday to claim that Mr. Brown's staff had made bullying complaints of the sort made by browbeaten fast-food workers and the parents of schoolchildren, attention quickly shifted to her own behaviour.
All four members of the private charity's board, two of them prominent Conservative politicians, resigned yesterday in protest at the ethical breach implicit in her call and its apparently political timing.
The board members, led by Tory MP Ann Widdecombe, were particularly alarmed that Ms. Pratt spent the day yesterday appearing on every major TV talk show and said several times that one of the Downing Street staff had taken leave after phoning the hot line - a detail that could identify the employee in such a small office.
Officials from Mr. Brown's Labour government, meanwhile, claimed that the National Bullying Helpline is in essence a Tory front organization, with Conservative politicians making up fully half of its board. Ms. Pratt denies any partisan ties. But as her support dwindled yesterday, her initial story seemed to change.
"We have received three or four calls from the Prime Minister's Office or Deputy Prime Minister's Office over the last 18 months or so. I haven't got the details in front of me. I will need to dig them out," she said in an interview with the Guardian.
She then said that at least one of those complaints was someone obtaining information from the charity's website, possibly for research, and that none of the alleged complaints mentioned the Prime Minister. "They have not said Gordon Brown is a bully," she said last night. "We aren't saying Gordon Brown is a bully. We are concerned there was a dismissive approach."
Occurring less than 100 days before a national election that must take place before the end of May, the "bullygate" scandal has overtaken economic and tax issues to dominate the campaign. But the affair doesn't appear to have helped the Conservatives: a national poll by the firm ICM, taken after the news broke, showed the Tories down to 37 per cent, only seven points ahead of Labour, the narrowest gap in the past year and one likely to produce a minority government.
The bullying claims emerge after The Observer published an excerpt from a forthcoming book, The End of the Party, by the newspaper's political journalist Andrew Rawnsley, documenting a series of dark moods, rages, depressions, and ranting incidents by the Prime Minister. Indeed, Mr. Rawnsley's book and the bullygate scandal seem to have confirmed that British politics remains a rough-and-tumble game dominated by short tempers and angry men.
Tony Blair, Mr. Brown's predecessor, was known for having an office filled with threats and violence - the difference being that Mr. Blair had staff members, such as strategist Alastair Campbell, who were specifically responsible for delivering a "monstering" to those who fell out of line.
Yesterday, Mr. Brown seemed to be using one such figure, his business secretary and right-hand man Peter Mandelson, to engage the media in just the sort of bullying he has been accused of. Asked repeatedly about the scandal at a press conference yesterday, Mr. Mandelson turned beet red, gesticulated angrily at a reporter and shouted: "Nobody bullies, and nobody tolerates any amount of bullying in this government. Period. Zero. That's it. Okay?"Report Typo/Error