It's 3 a.m. and a phone in Downing Street rings. The question British voters are asking themselves isn't just whether Gordon Brown has the vision and experience to answer that call. It's whether Brown might decide to hurl the phone at a hapless aide.
Britain's Prime Minister emerges in three new books by Peter Watt, a former general secretary of the Labour Party, Lance Price, a former Downing Street adviser, and Andrew Rawnsley, a political journalist as a man of volcanic rages, prone to lobbing mobile phones and choice epithets if provoked. And this trio of tomes, carefully timed for publication ahead of parliamentary elections tipped by insiders to take place on May 6, certainly offers provocation.
With the Conservative opposition's lead slipping, Labour had hoped to gain further ground by softening Brown's austere public image. In a Valentine's Day interview with talent-show judge Piers Morgan, Brown gave a moving account of the death of his baby daughter nine years ago: "I think it's important that people know who you are and I think it's important that people can ask any questions they like about you," said Brown. "I'm an open book as far as people are concerned."
It's bad luck for Brown that the latest open book has proved the most incendiary, sparking a conflagration of claims, counterclaims and fresh allegations. "I have never hit anybody in my life," Brown insisted in a Feb. 20 interview with Channel 4 News, broadcast on the eve of serialization of Rawnsley's The End of the Party in a Sunday newspaper.
Rawnsley does not allege that Brown hit anyone. His book does claim that Brown swore at U.S. political strategist Bob Shrum, stabbed the white leather interior of an official car with a black pen, grabbed a staff member by the lapels and earned a "pep talk" about how to treat staff from Cabinet Secretary, Gus O'Donnell. Taken together with Watt's depiction of a temperamental premier sulking at a dinner including Louis Susman, later appointed U.S. ambassador to London, after guests took their seats without waiting for Brown to allocate placements, and Price's account of Brown's "extraordinary flashes of anger," this contributes to a picture of the kind of volatility that undermined John McCain's presidential campaign.
Downing Street and the Cabinet Office vigorously deny all the allegations. Cabinet ministers are lining up to defend Brown. "I don't think [Brown] so much bullies people as he is very demanding of people," Lord Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Business and a mainstay of Brown's government, told a BBC program. But attempts to close down the story and move on have been thwarted by a fresh allegation. Christine Pratt, chief executive of a charity called the National Bullying Helpline, has spoken to British media outlets claiming that Downing Street staff contacted her organization for help, telling one interviewer "I have personally taken a call from staff in the Prime Minister's office, staff who believe they are working in a bullying culture."
It fell to a member of that very staff to issue yet another rebuttal. "At no time has the National Bullying Helpline contacted No. 10 about these allegations," said a No. 10 spokesman. "We have rigorous, well-established procedures in place to allow any member of staff to address any concerns over inappropriate treatment or behavior. The civil service will continue to have a no-tolerance policy on bullying."
Pratt has drawn criticism for her intervention from another antibullying charity. "We suggest Mrs. Pratt considers her position, given the damage she has caused to the antibullying sector where confidentiality is paramount," said Bullying U.K. in a statement published on its website.
Pratt rejected breaching confidentiality and denied any political motivation after commentators noticed that her charity's website carries endorsements from Conservative leader David Cameron who has called for an inquiry into the Brown bullying allegations and Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, also listed as a patron of the helpline. The impact of her comments was undermined as her account of the number and source of the alleged calls changed in successive interviews, and four patrons of the charity, including Widdecombe, resigned. Mandelson, returning to the fray, suggested that Labour's opponents might have directed journalists to the organization. "This whole affair is starting to acquire a slight odor. It now looks like more of a political operation that's under way, directed at the Prime Minister personally," he said.
So just how badly could these assaults on Brown's character impact on his chances of victory? "If the story carries on and you get a new and fixed public sense of Brown, that he's a bully and he's emotionally out of control, that could be immensely damaging," says Peter Kellner, the president of the polling organization YouGov. The Prime Minister's best hope of retaining his job, adds Kellner, is that voters see Brown "as passionate and better that than somebody who's bland."
With campaigning in full swing and emotions running so high before the election has even been formally called, it may well be British voters who end up feeling bullied by the time they finally get to cast their ballots.