Skip to main content

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown listens during the Progressive Governance Conference in London February 19, 2010.


The isolated, desperate loner who shouts, punches walls and lashes out at terrified staff, causing them to phone a bullying hotline. The sensitive family man who weeps openly at the memory of the death of a child. Those two visions of Gordon Brown are now vying for the attention of voters who had previously known the British Prime Minister mainly as a dour, serious-minded and somewhat inarticulate economist devoted to the minutae of policy.

His inner life burst to the surface last night when Christine Pratt, the head of the National Bullying Helpline, called the BBC to inform them that "three or four" members of the 10 Downing St. staff had contacted the organization for help in dealing with their treatment at the Prime Minister's hand.

That followed the publication Sunday of an excerpt from a book by Andrew Rawnsley, a political journalist with deep ties within the Labour Party and Downing Street, which describes a succession of Mr. Brown's angry outbursts and rants during his three years in office. The book says that the head of Britain's civil service had reprimanded Mr. Brown over his behaviour.

Story continues below advertisement

The Prime Minister is described as having grabbed staffers by the lapels, pulled them out of chairs and yelled at them frequently, often in colourful language. He frequently punched walls, chairs and car seats - the white leather seat of his Jaguar is described as being scarred black from being given angry pokes from Mr. Brown's magic marker - but he does not seem to have hit anyone.

While denying the book's allegations, the Downing Street staff and Mr. Brown appeared to be trying to use them to political advantage, noting that they show a committed and passionate leader at work.

Business secretary Peter Mandelson, a veteran Labour insider who is considered the No.2 figure in the government today, told the BBC that Mr. Brown is the sort of leader who "gets angry, but chiefly with himself, who doesn't bully people … he does not like taking no for an answer."

Mr. Brown told Britain's Channel 4 that he sometimes says regrettable things "in the heat of the moment" and might "throw the newspapers to the floor or something like that." He added: "I'm very strong-willed, I'm very determined. I think the country wants someone that will push things forward, and not allow things to be stagnant and stale."

The opposition Conservatives seized upon the allegations to argue that his allegedly unstable character makes him unsuited for another five years of office in an election likely to take place in May.

Yet the revelations may have the effect, paradoxically, of humanizing a leader who has been somewhat of a cipher to the British public after being handed the prime ministership with Tony Blair's resignation in 2007. After the former finance minister launched an aborted election campaign in 2007 under the slogan "No flash, just Gordon," he seemed to cultivate a remote and impersonal image in contrast to Mr. Blair.

While talented at making major speeches, Mr. Brown has been unable to articulate any sort of personal narrative or guiding vision of the sort that U.S. and British politicians are expected to possess.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Brown himself sought to reverse that perception with a major TV interview earlier this month with a former tabloid editor turned talk-show host in which he talked about personal tragedies, including a moment when he broke down and wept while discussing the death of one of his children, an 11-day-old premature daughter.

While the interview was seen by journalists and opposition politicians as a cynical and exploitative electoral move - and indeed Mr. Brown was coached before the interview by Alastair Campbell, Mr. Blair's former spin doctor and a master of such scenes.

But the public seemed genuinely impressed with Mr. Brown's decision to talk about his personal life. (He fended off questions about his sex life, probably also to the relief of voters.) A national survey by the polling firm YouGov released Sunday found that Labour's share of the vote rose after the interview to 33 per cent, against 39 per cent for David Cameron's Conservatives and 17 per cent for the centrist Liberal Democrats.

Those numbers would give the Tories only a minority government, leading to the possibility of the Liberal Democrats forging a coalition with the Conservatives - or, if their results improve slightly, with Labour.

And when pollsters in the same survey asked Britons specifically about Mr. Brown's tears, 64 per cent said they agreed that "politicians should display genuine emotion more frequently," against only 14 per cent disagreeing.

The possibility that an angry, frustrated Mr. Brown will receive a similar poll boost as the heartbroken, sad Mr. Brown is being discussed within Labour circles, in part because the revelations in Mr. Rawnsley's book are not as damning as feared.

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.