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GB, temper or not, a better leader for Britain than DC

Posted on 23 February 2010 | 10:02am

I thought David Steel was rather good on Newsnight last night. I was half asleep, if woken by the shouting match between JP and Andrew Rawnsley, but Steel’s main point seemed to be a lament that this is the kind of thing that now dominates political debate.

There is always a danger, once you hit the back nine of life, as I did a few years ago, of old fartism setting in, sufficient to make you imagine things were different and better ‘back in my day.’

But, thinking back to the time I was a journalist covering Steel as leader of the Liberal Party, and his fellow panellist Roy Hattersley as deputy leader of the Labour Party, I don’t think my memory is playing tricks in recalling that debates really were much more about policy.

Yes, it is true that his predecessor Jeremy Thorpe’s career and legacy were destroyed by a sex scandal, and that personality issues between Steel and David Owen were the source of considerable strain and media comment, culminating in the Spitting Image depiction of Steel as a puppet inside Owen’s pocket.  It is also true that ‘tabloid tales’ were always there or thereabouts, though the difference is that the divisions between tabloids, broadsheets and broadcast media as to what constitutes a ‘story’ are pretty much gone now.True too that with the Cold War forming the geopolitical backdrop to politics in most democracies, the differences between the parties back then were perhaps greater than now.

None of that negates the central notion that policy debates do tend more quickly to get drowned out now if a personality issue comes along. And whilst Steel mentioned changes at PMQs as being partly responsible, so is the changed nature of the media landscape.

There is not much point raging at Andrew Rawnsley for writing a book. He is a journalist not a politician, albeit for a paper that likes to put itself on the side of the progressives; and his book having been written, it would be odd to expect him not to want to promote it.

Hattersley also had quite an interesting take – that he had no evidence of the kind of behaviour GB is accused of, but felt that even if he did have what were being called ‘temper tantrums’, it did not make him any less fit to do his job. Steel echoed the point in what I thought was rather a good overall defence of the prime minister.

It also seems to me – and this often happens when a frenzy kicks off – that as emotions rise and positions harden, some fairly obvious truths get lost.

That GB is capable of getting angry is no secret to anyone who has worked with him down the years. I have seen him in a rage with TB, with JP, with Peter Mandelson, with me, with others. But I have never seen him grab staff by the lapels, hit anyone or throw inanimate objects around the place, which is the general impression created in recent days, especially since Mrs Pratt from the bullying helpline got involved, even if she has since said none of the alleged complaints from Number 10 concerned GB.

I have also seen GB be charming and funny. Above all I have seen him, in many different situations, be driven and determined and passionate about his beliefs and the policies he thinks Britain needs to embrace.

We are all complicated people, every single one of us, and as with any other high profile figure, there are many different aspects to GB’s character. As he said himself at the weekend, he is not perfect. Nobody is. He is strong-willed, impatient, can be grumpy, and could do with chilling out a bit more from time to time.

But having seen him and other leaders up close, I am in no doubt he is a better leader for this country, particularly in times like these, than David Cameron would be. Indeed, the last 48 hours, and the Tory leader’s handling of the issue, has made me more not less convinced about that. There is something pretty shameful about the extent to which Cameron’s Tories want to make the debate about anything but serious, thought through policies to which they might stick for more than a day or two.

GB won’t be enjoying the current brouhaha, which is why the Tories and a media which has invested too much in saying he has to go, are driving it for all it’s worth.

But he has seen off far worse than this and can be confident that when the debate does return to policy, which it will, his strengths and Cameron’s weaknesses –  the likeliest reasons for recent narrowing of the polls – will be back on parade.

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  • @jlocke13

    Is this the same Gordon Brown who for ten years waged a guerilla campaign against his boss…what leadership qualities did that demonstrate? being a potentially better leader than Cameron hardly makes him qualified to lead the UK, the sad part is that the UK electorate has only a choice of the least worse…!

  • Harriet Greene

    Steel was brilliant. Hattersley not bad. Prezza went a bit ott but was vintage. Paxo skewered Rawnsley well. The Times man too much toeing the Murdoch line. Part of the problem, as you allude to,is that the Murdoch papers now feel they have to throw everything at Brown to justify the Sun switch. The Times today is ludicrously biased.

  • Carolyn Jowitt

    AC, cannot help thinking that if you not Coulson had been the AC convicted of a serious bullying charge which led to a record fine, the media would never lose the chance to remind us. Yet because their tongues are so keen on kissing the Old Etonian bottie, Coulson’s bullying – even when bullying is the issue – barely gets a mention. People say we get the press we deserve. God help us. Didn;t see Newsnight but nice to see you being nice about a Liberal for once!!

  • Paul Martin

    This seems a better position than the blanket denials. It is obvious in your diaries – even if you did edit them – that GB has a touch of the volcanoes about him. I think people know the difference between a temper and bullying. Did you see your mate Sir Alex losing it with Jonny Evans in Milan last week. If film emerged of GB screaming abuse like that at an employee, the world would go into meltdown!

  • olli issakainen

    I must admit that some allegations about GB are 24 carat – 24 carat rubbish!
    Gus O´Donnell has denied warning PM over behaviour. Mrs Pratt has said that alleged complaints were not about GB.
    Even the Daily Telegraph wrote that “Andrew Rawnsley´s latest book may get the odd recollection wrong here and there”. Lance Price said in the Guardian that “the atmosphere inside No 10 appears to have calmed down considerably”.
    Consensus is that these allegations will not hurt Labour in the election. Nobody is perfect – even I have slight difficulty with letter S! – and GB´s “psychological flaws” were all well-known before the book.
    Tough times need tough leaders. Churchill and Thatcher got angry sometimes. And no one is suggesting that Sir Alex is not fit to manage Man Utd because of flying teacups and hairdryer treatments.
    GB´s strenght is that he is Gordon Brown – not some artificial creation.
    Anyway, we are now talking about side issue. With the gap now to 7 points and Lord Heseltine saying that David Cameron can´t win a majority, the focus should be on economic and social policy. Timing and placing of cuts is important. David Cameron has no clarity. Gordon Brown knows how process will be managed.
    With Gordon Brown you know what you will get. The coming TV debates are now going to have huge impact on election results. And strong-willed and determined Gordon Brown is going to show that he has policies that will deliver.

  • Chris lancashire

    I think you are quite right that debates did used to be more on policy and have decended into too much infantile personalising – who was it who started runours about Major’s underpants?

    As to whether Brown is a bully or not. I really don’t care. I do care about the unholy mess he has made of the country’s finances though.

  • Megan

    Can’t understand these comments! Paxman did not lay a finger on Rawnsley, let alone ‘skewer’ him. Andrew Rawnsley put up a very robust defence & almost made JP self combust when he brought up the two Prescott books. David Steel? – Meh! Not impressed. Hattersley seemed to offer a two bites of the cherry defence : he refutes the accusations vehemently, but then says even if the accusations are true, it doesn’t make him unfit to be PM! – Not convincing!

  • Marion

    Nice to see I’m not the only member of the public who prefers policy led debate… the ‘Gang of Four’ were driven by their own beliefs, rather than nay-saying about the beliefs of others. In my opinion it is this policy led drive and passion that Britian needs in the Executive.

  • Mark Wright

    This story has already been knocked off the top spot of the news agenda coming a lowly 4th on BBC News 24 and even then that was only for a comment by the always radiant Sarah Brown.

    This story has the potential to be a plus for GB. This past couple of weeks has seen the yin and yang of GB exposed for all to see, flaws and all. And what does that equal? An actual human being!

    If people thought they knew GB a bit better after the Piers interview they feel they know him *even* better now. No bad thing.

    As for Cameron? One word. Insipid.

  • Em

    I’m disappointed with your defence of Rawnsley. His claims cannot be verified and too many readers are going to take his contentions for Gospel. These books, like Peter Oborne’s book about you, are useless and they shouldn’t be published.

    Peter Mandelson spoke on Rawnsley’s imaginative powers when the journalist wrote about a conversation PM allegedly had with GB. PM said the convo never took place and even if it had, he wonders how Rawnsley could have known about it. I know many journos are failed novelists, but they would do us a favour by sticking to what they can prove or turn to fiction outright.

    Unless there are further developments, I doubt this will hurt GB. Journos today are saying what I was saying yesterday about staffers being wimps. Gordon Brown scared the SECURITY guys????

    I’m going to repeat myself because I’m really, really, really grateful Britain put a stop to Hitler and I’m really, really, really happy today’s weaklings didn’t have to face him.

    C’mon, Britain. Use your balls.

  • Patrick James

    I think the bullying story will be history pretty soon.

    Maybe it will produce a blip in the polls increasing the Conservatives’ lead for a week or two I don’t know.

    Soon we will be back to the policies and then I feel that Labour will continue to narrow down that gap in the opinion polls.

  • Brian Hughes

    I’m six and a half years plus a day ahead of you in the old farts stakes if Wikipedia is to be believed but I’m not convinced that there were any more policy debates in the old days when I was a lad than there are now. Many of the cartoons and scandal sheets from the previous centuries also suggest that few of the proverbial punches were pulled back then in attacks on politicians’ personalities.

    What has changed though is that there’s a lot more stuff about nowadays. So what little policy debate there is gets swamped by tittle-tattle. Journalists have acres of newsprint and web sites to fill and hours of broadcasting time to while away.

    To avoid becoming infuriated by the lameness of so much of the allegedly informed comment, it seems best to laugh at it. Take, if you can stand it, Rachel Sylvester on her high horse again in the Times writing about how anyone with a temper is unfit to be a PM. By my estimation that rules out all of the last fifty five or so!

    And what about poor old Nick Robinson being forced to stand outside number ten in the cold well past his bedtime so that he can spout live for our delectation the same old non-news he padded out for the six o’clock bulletin?

    How do some of these people sleep at night after their day’s “work”, why do we collectively give them a living?

  • jo harley

    well done for your work on mental health. I am a nurse and have on going issues with addiction. Great to hear you breaking down the tabooos.