Gordon Brown was determined to accentuate the positive in his monthly press conference. Apart from when confronted with the horrors of the Edlington case, of course.
By Alex Stevenson Stevenson
The broad outline of the coming general election campaign is already becoming clear. David Cameron's Conservatives have revealed their miserabilist colours; it doesn't pay for opposition parties to talk about how wonderful everything is. Labour, by contrast, plan on running a cheery campaign based on the future, not the present.
This, of course, was why Brown's press conference was scheduled for today. It's the week when figures are expected to announce Britain has emerged from recession after 18 consecutive months of misery. Brown was determined to be cheerful. And, where before these efforts were doomed to awkwardness, he managed to pull it off.
Incredibly, extraordinarily, unexpectedly, the much-prayed-for but hardly-anticipated Lightening Up of the prime minister is finally occurring. Brown's utter failure to change his dour and forbidding public image upon moving into No 10 had been well-documented. It appeared his was a severe, incurable case. Drastic treatments were tried, including a Facebook experiment, but these went wrong with hideous side-effects. Yet a miracle cure appears to be in process.
A few confidence-boosting prime minister's questions and Brown has started becoming quite the showman. Even his sternest critics were forced to concede this today. The glint in his eye made journalists roar with laughter as he explained away the latest speculation about May 6th. He appeared genuinely excited at the memory of his 1997 election debates with the then-chancellor, Ken Clarke. His response to one awkward question came straight out of musical theatre. As the prime minister slowly spread his arms out to his side it looked more like an audition for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat than for another term in government. Fortunately for all, he did not burst into song.
Instead he began with "I'm just sad", summing up his response to Cameron's Broken Britain jibes. The Tory leader's attempt to steal Brown's thunder by shaping the day's news agenda was broadly successful, but the PM was determined to avoid the horrors of Edlington being painted as a reflection of the wider country. Brown's Britain, it seems, is one in which people give money to Children in Need and are super best friends. How to explain away the Britain in which children can inflict such violence upon their peers?
Here Brown fell back on the mixture of contrition and melancholia which, perhaps after all, gives the PM hope that if he loses he can turn to the theatre for employment. Not that Brown's emotions are artificial. Far from it. Only politicians and newsreaders have his ability to switch from jovial witticisms to frank sadness in the blink of an eye.
"We have to learn the lessons," he quavered quietly. His head shook slowly from side to side. His pursed lips betrayed an aching heart of compassion. His eyebrows danced slowly up and down in a slow-motion ballet of emotion. It looked like he was mere seconds away from either bursting into tears or letting out a huge sad sigh. But he always recovered, the feelings disappearing as quickly as they had arrived.
Perhaps most revealing were the occasions when the economy cropped up, and the prime minister had evidently forgotten he was no longer giving briefings to Treasury civil servants. After an hour had passed the clunking karate-chop was finally deployed, the brusque barks of conviction returned. "We have at all times to show we are VIGILANT," he said at one stage. Which was strange, because the subject of his leadership was not mentioned once.