Is the psychological state of the prime minister a legitimate matter for public debate? A new book, The End of the Party by the journalist Andrew Rawnsley, claims that Gordon Brown hit one of his aides, dragged a secretary forcibly from her chair and subjected party workers to a tirade of abuse. Rawnsley, who once claimed that his key source “knows the mind of Tony Blair” wrote in similar vein in an earlier book “Servants of the People” in 2000. He reported that Number Ten believed the then Chancellor Brown had “psychological flaws” - was a paranoid obsessive, given to furious tempers,and unfit for the office of PM. Now, I wonder who it was who told him that?
Rawnsley's sources are known to include Alistair Campbell. Over the years, the Observer columnist has become a repository for the bile and loathing of most of the Labour 'big beasts' who have had cause, over the years, to feel slighted or injured by Gordon Brown. And the PM has made a lot of enemies as we know. It is of course an important matter if the Prime Minister is emotionally unstable. But do I believe the new allegations? Students of Brown know that he can be a clumsy individual with poor social skills. But I don't believe for a moment that he would ever actually hit someone John Prescott style, or intentionally man-handle a secretary. These allegations sound very much like the hyped up tales of “abuse” that are relayed to divorce lawyers by celebrity wives – like Heather Mills' allegations about Sir Paul McCartney.
I'm sure Brown is quite capable of colliding with an aide while rushing out of Number Ten to an official engagement - and being too preoccupied to notice or apologise. He may even have brusquely 'assisted' a secretary to make way for him at a computer, but I could never believe that he would throw her across the room. And for neavens' sake, what leader in history hasn't lost their temper occasionally. Apply these standards to Winston Churchill, and he would never have got into parliament.
These tales are pretty feeble – and of course denied by Number Ten. So why am I giving them the oxygen of publicity? Doesn't it just help Rawnsley sell copies of his book? Well, it matters because this latest round of Brown smearing is yet another astonishing demonstration of Labour's fratricidal death wish – it's seeming determination to lose the forthcoming election. The very day these stories were going to press we learned that David Cameron's lead over Labour is shrinking fast. The latest opinion polls in the Telegraph and the Mirror, both show that Labour is in striking distance – 7 or 8 percent - of the Tories . Something very interesting is happening in the undergrowth of public opinion. With unemployment falling and the economy apparently recovering from recession, people are thinking anew about Labour. Some voters are clearly thinking that, while they don't like Gordon Brown very much, he seems to be doing the right thing, on the economy at least.
People are also thinking twice about David Cameron. The Tories have suddenly started saying that they aren't actually going to make “swingeing” cuts in public spending after all. This is presumably because focus groups have shown them that promising to slash and burn public services isn't very reassuring to voters. Some six million people in Britain work for the public sector and many private sector jobs depends on state spending of one form or another. As the response to my column last week on public sector pensions and privileges demonstrated -I was soundly bitch-slapped across the Herald letters pages - that is a pretty vigorous fan base for the state. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is of course one of them and has warned against Tory plans to “pull the rug” from under the economy by making premature cuts in public spending.
Cameron has also been all over the place on his key policy on tax relief for married couples – last month he didn't seem to know that he was indeed committed to introducing it. And other policies have gone astray. Are they for the war in Afghanistan or against it? Stuffed if I know. Do they really want to introduce a right to kill burglars? Do they intend to cut the number of Scottish MPs in Westminster or not? It doesn't exactly inspire confidence that, three months from a general election, so many Tory policies are ill formed. An air brushed face of David Cameron on Tory bill-boards doesn't compensate for a lack of words. So,it might just be that Labour has a real opportunity here to counter the Tory's main argument: that it is 'time for a change' . Labour could equally say: 'you don't change horses in mid stream'. That was what won John Major the 1992 general election, against the odds, and I'm beginning to believe that it could possibly be the same for Brown. At the very least, it might be a hung parliament.
But people sure as hell aren't going to vote for a party that is divided amongst itself. That is filled with resentful ex ministers who seem to place attacking Gordon Brown above the interests of the Labour Party. Granted, Brown wasn't exactly 100% Blair-loyal in the past, but the Brownites never behaved as badly as this. In June, remember, a whole raft of Blairite Labour cabinet ministers including James Purnell and Hazel Blears walked out on the very eve of the Euro election. In January, in the very week Cameron was adrift over marriage tax reliefs, a claque of Blairites led by Patricia Hewitt and Geof Hoon, tried to mount a coup against Brown.
Now, with the election campaign in sight, we have a new attempt at character assassination of Brown by the Blairite old guard via their conduit du jour, Andrew Rawnsley. I don't know about the enemy, but with friends like these... Now this column hasn't exactly stinted on criticism of Gordon Brown in the past. But I have to say, he doesn't deserve this. Brown has often been his own worst enemy in the past. But if he is going to lose the general election, he should be at least allowed to lose it his way – and not this way.