Storms and teacups

Both the media and bourgeois politicians want us to concentrate on personal strengths and weaknesses. But that is not the main issue, argues James Turley

The British election season is heating up, in more ways than one.

Firstly, and most prominently displayed in the last week, the dirty tricks are getting dirtier. Gordon Brown has become the subject of bullying allegations once again; this time, wielding the hatchet is Blairite journalist Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer’s most prominent Westminster writer.

In an instalment of a new book serialised in that paper (February 21), Rawnsley alleges that Brown is prone to fits of temper, which occasionally results in physical violence against underlings. Much has been made of one particular story, in which a lowly typist frustrated Brown so much that he allegedly upended her out of her chair and sat down at the keyboard himself. Rawnsley also alleges that Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary, was alerted to these complaints, and issued a formal warning to the prime minister about his behaviour.

The government immediately moved to issue denials. Peter Mandelson, the career politician’s career politician, flatly denied any bullying at No10, saying that Brown was merely very demanding - of others, but particularly of himself. Mandelson did not seem overly concerned at what he at first regarded as a “storm in a teacup” - and indeed why should he be? Despite the big names involved, these revelations are hardly earth-shattering; for a start, it is well-known already, particularly in those sections of the media able to closely follow Westminster, that Brown has a short fuse under pressure. Revelations from former insiders already litter the bookshelves.

The new and specific allegations from Rawnsley are, for the most part, unsourced, as per the oleaginous shmoozer’s modus operandi. They also date from the period after Brown flip-flopped over the autumn 2007 election that never was; in other words, a time when Downing Street was more or less in a state of siege, from which the government - following the economic collapse and a million other things - has still yet to recover.

So why has this resurfaced? The answer is partly to do with a woman called Christine Pratt, who - with her husband - runs an anti-bullying charity and helpline. She went public, telling the BBC’s Daily politics TV show on February 22 that “three or four” people had phoned the helpline relating to conditions at 10 Downing Street. Though she made it clear that these complaints and communications had not been linked to Brown, she apparently took umbrage at Mandelson’s fairly categorical denial of any wrongdoing in the PM’s office.

Pratt’s exposure has backfired on her to a considerable extent - apoplectic reactions from Labour figures were followed by the resignation of key trustees of her charity, including hard-right Tory MP Anne Widdecombe. From there, it was merely a race to the obvious line that she had acted like a “prat” (the winner, in the event, was key New Labour reactionary Phil Woolas). Pratt insists that she is not politically motivated; but her evidence for this is merely that her charity is funded largely by business and not at all by the state, and that she is not personally a member of the Tories, which should not reassure us too much as to her pristine motives. Certainly, the further allegations from her side enabled the Tory and Liberal Democrat leaders to offer guarded condemnations.

The other side to this explosion, however, is the complete bungling of the issue by Labour. Firstly, we should note that Rawnsley’s book has been expected for some time. The Mail on Sunday made a meal out of it last month (January 31). Members of Labour’s inner-circle would have known about it even earlier.

Yet this was the time they chose to rebrand the puritanical son-of-the-manse, Gordon Brown, as a compelling human individual, with far more depth and substance than the superficial nice-guy antics of David (‘call me Dave’) Cameron. So badly prepared were Labour for these allegations that it arranged a one-hour interview with narcissistic media suit Piers Morgan, in which this all-new human side would come out fully. The initial media reaction included some surprisingly positive comments, contrasting, for example, Brown’s performance with the stiff, socially awkward persona that comes over on more formal occasions. Many were impressed, in spite of themselves, at Alastair Campbell’s media training programme; whatever Gordon Brown looked like on that show, he did not look like ... well, Gordon Brown.

This was broadcast a week before Rawnsley’s book was to begin serialisation (and after its most sensational charges had been broken by the Mail on Sunday). The phrase ‘hostage to fortune’ does not quite cover the screening of this sycophantic interview a week before Brown’s hot head was inevitably going to hit headlines - if only in The Observer.

It has become usual to open articles with the sentence, ‘It has been another bad week for Gordon Brown.’ This time, however, in spite of all this, it is not clear that it has been. A Guardian/ICM poll, published on February 22 and conducted over the days before the Observer piece and after the Morgan interview, recorded another drop in the Tory lead. As things stand, a hung parliament is perhaps more likely than a Tory outright victory; David Cameron, meanwhile, has been made to look a bit stupid as he reverses positions on the economy, and shadow chancellor George Osborne is tied up in a family scandal involving the exchange of prescription medicines for sex. Brown’s chances are still pretty dire, but they are better than they have been for over a year.

A hung parliament would be no use to Brown, who would be immediately replaced. A weak Tory majority - or minority government - would probably do more damage to the Tories, however. Having based the appeal to Conservative Party grassroots on immediate public sector cuts, it remains to be seen whether such cuts are even possible; should Cameron succeed, they will greatly increase the likelihood of a second economic downturn, at any rate, which would scupper any minority government in moments.

The bad news for Brown is that the poll finds no evidence that the Morgan interview has made any contribution whatever to this reversal. Even this cloud has a silver lining, however, as many people unconcerned with Brown’s personal virtues are unlikely to be too concerned about his vices either.

Exactly how this will all pan out for him is singularly unclear. It is possible that there will be a dip in poll ratings, after all; though the opposition parties are actually fairly reluctant to come out in strong terms on what are at the end of the day unsourced allegations, we should not underestimate the capability of a flailing Labour government in profound decay once again to pick at the scab until it becomes infected. Every time these allegations come out, it seems, there is a Blairite with a finger in it somewhere - before Rawnsley there was former Labour general secretary Peter Watts and Blair spin doctor Lance Price. Not too surprising, since they would have all the good gossip ...

All the sound and fury in the world, however, will not disclose a meaningful political difference between New Labour and the Conservatives at the coming election. Labour offers a less pressing timetable for budget cuts - but such things, as we have noted, are more or less imposed on governments anyway. David Cameron cannot substantiate his guff about the ‘broken society’ without talking like the very old-fashioned sort of Tory he really is. Gordon Brown simply lurches in whatever direction allows him to cling onto power. Both have every interest in bigging up their personalities (but neither really appears to have one of those, either).

That personality does not appear to have made much difference, despite its prominence, is not a huge surprise. Extended appeals to charismatic personal trust ring a little hollow when the headlines are still periodically dominated by fallout from the MPs’ expenses scandal. The battle between the PR man and the bureaucrat is not some clash of demigods interesting to the general public in itself. Left-leaning voters appreciate the values Brown attempts to sell them - intellectual and moral seriousness, an appreciation of people’s hardships and so on - only when they are not in stark contradiction with what he actually manages to pony up. If voters are told that Brown has a good moral compass, but observe a government which clearly has no purpose beyond increasingly desperate self-perpetuation, they will reject the personal appeal as so much irrelevant spin - and rightly so.

So how much is there left to play for in this election season? The Tories are, of course, still clear front-runners. Labour hopes of a successful fightback are fairly lean - they have begun to come back before, and then collapsed again, so the directionless New Labour project seems to have lost its ability to build on gains in any positive way. Alistair Darling’s stunning remarks on Sky TV about how Downing Street had “unleashed the forces of Hell” against him in 2008 being a case in point. For Labour to get a working majority at this stage would be almost miraculous; a hung parliament is likely, but would not favour Labour, as there is little in it for the Liberal Democrats to prop up a dying regime.

Whoever wins, however, may well come to think of it as a Pyrrhic victory. Short of some uncharacteristic good news from the City of London (or the city of Kabul), the new government will inherit an economic and political situation largely beyond its control - especially a weak, minority or coalition government.

The abiding lesson: bourgeois politics is running out of answers.