Comment: Gordon Brown is a bully! So what?

Bullying is an ugly word, but we need tough, committed individuals in Downing Street.

By Matthew West

If anyone was in any doubt about the extent to which this year's general election will be about personality, yesterday's expose by Observer political editor Andrew Rawnsley that the prime minister is a bully should have erased it.

For me personally, this has aroused some sympathy for Gordon Brown. It is likely that he has shouted at a few people. It is very likely in my mind that he neither suffers fools gladly nor is the most patient man in the world. But this doesn't make him a bad person for me, it doesn't make him a bully and it doesn't make him a bad prime minister. In fact, to me the effect is the exact opposite.

That doesn't stop this kind of 'revelation' being extremely damaging to a man who needs to be liked by voters regardless of whether or not he has better policies than his rivals.

The problem with revelations such as these is that, regardless how good Rawnsley's sources are - and he has claimed they are '24 carat gold' - is it's difficult to see them as being motivated by anything other than personal malice on the part of the prime minister's accusers and personal ambition on the part of Rawnsley.

Why they are damaging is simple. Such accusations have been made before and if you throw enough mud at someone, eventually it sticks. That's not to say that it's not true, I'm sure many of the accusations are. But if you work in government you've got to be a bit thicker-skinned than that. Watching an episode of the 'Thick of It' would teach you that if nothing else.

Moreover, what's wrong with having a prime minister that is passionate about getting things done? What's wrong with a prime minister who isn't willing to accept mistakes, expects high standards of professionalism and for staff to 'give at the office'?

One look at David Cameron's leadership of his party and the endless list of own goals the Tories have scored in the last six weeks alone would surely suggest that being a hard taskmaster is the right way to lead government. Not to mention the fact that Cameron was said to be 'incandescent' last week after the Conservative cock up over the percentage of teenage pregnancies occurring under the age of 18 - in case you missed it the Tories claimed 54% of them were from its 'Broken Britain' when the reality was more like 5.4 per cent.

No one has criticised Cameron for delivering what was no doubt a full frontal hair dryer-style dressing down. And yet there must be little doubt that several aides received one.

We should want our political leaders to be passionate about the things they want to achieve. We should want them to be impatient to make things happen. And if they work in government they should bring their best game to every working day in the knowledge that they serve their nation and are striving to achieve the best goals for everyone they live with or meet in the street. That might sound worryingly American in the scale of its idealism and nationalism and if so I make no apology for it, because in some ways this is the biggest criticism one could have for a permanent civil service: that it lacks that sense of purpose.

While having a permanent civil service ensures a degree of continuity of government it means that there are going to be people that get too comfortable in their roles, become obstructive or simply don't believe in the policy agenda they are tasked with delivering. As such, knowing that they are really the government rather than the ruling party, they can plot and scheme to their hearts content to unsettle things. To use another popular culture reference, remember 'Yes Minister' and 'Yes Prime Minister' and the constant battles between Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker?

At least under the US system the people that take over the White House after a new president has been elected believe passionately in the reforms they want to achieve. Sometimes that leads to government being a bit of a mess but what we don't get is people that believe themselves to be so secure in their jobs they don't have to try.

People get sworn at at work everyday, the air in the offices of many national newspapers are almost a constant shade of blue as news editors scream at reporters to get stories finished because they are approaching deadlines. This of course makes it all the more ridiculous that journalists who themselves understand pressure better than most would willingly strike such a low blow at the prime minister.

And let's not forget that the National Bullying Helpline has only confirmed that it has received one or two phone calls from staff at Number 10 and there is little, if any, real evidence that the prime minister is connected to this at all, so we are largely dealing with a lack of real information.

Working in government means working in a highly pressurised environment and personally I want my prime minister to strike fear into the hearts of those that work for him. Most do. One can't imagine Margaret Thatcher being all that easy to work for and yet she was lorded for being the 'Iron Lady'. And as Machiavelli pointed out over 500 years ago you can either be feared or loved and it's better to be feared.

The problem for Gordon Brown is this image of him as a bully just won't go away. And it helps to unpick the image he portrayed of himself as a kind, loving husband and father - who just happens to be a bit shy and doesn't like talking about himself all that much - in his interview with Peirs Morgan last weekend. Given it's likely that this election will be decided by a large group of floating, largely female, voters the image of Brown as a bully does extreme damage. Whether it's true or not, his PR people need to nip this in the bud now or Labour could lose its newfound momentum in the general election campaign.

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