Brown goes on the attack at Leveson

The former PM's desire to settle scores made this a remarkable performance.

Gordon Brown, who has made few public statements since leaving Downing Street, has come to the Leveson inquiry with an unashamed desire to settle scores. In the first hour of his testimony, he "absolutely" denied that the Sun received permission from him or his wife to run a story on his son's cystic fibrosis, denounced James Murdoch's MacTaggart lecture as "breathtaking in its arrogance and ambition" and quipped that "You can serve up dinner, but you can't serve up BSkyB as part of the dinner."  And there was more - the former Prime Minister told the inquiry that he had passed to a recording of Sunday Times reporters discussing "illegal (newsgathering) techniques" to the police, and contradicted Rupert Murdoch's claim that he told him he had no choice but to "make war" on his company after the Sun's defection to the Tories (one wonders if the inquiry will adjudicate on this point). Brown's prodigious memory (we haven't once heard the words "I can't recall") and righteous fury have made this one of the most remarkable performances of the inquiry.

The most difficult moment for Brown came when he was challenged on why he and his wife continued to regularly socialise with News International executives even after the Sun's story on their son. Brown replied that his wife was "one of the most forgiving people I know", an answer that some will find implausible. Was it not, rather, that Brown was so determined to win over the media that he cynically forgave even their gross abuse of his family's privacy?

Asked about his relationship with Murdoch, which was far warmer than Blair or Cameron's, Brown said it was "faintly ridiculous" to suggest he was influenced by Murdoch's views. In an amusing line, he quipped that Murdoch would have us at war with France and Germany and have Scotland as the "52nd state" (independent and Atlanticist). Of his similarly warm relationship with Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, he said Dacre was "personally very kind" but rightly noted that this did nothing to diminish the ferocity of the Mail's attacks on Labour. Even more than Blair, Brown acquired a reputation as a media obsessive. But, he insisted, he is "so obsessed by the newspapers that I rarely read them".

Along the way, Brown has also taken the time to remind us of his opposition to euro membership and to defend his Afghanistan policy. The former PM appears to have seized an opportunity to deliver a state-of-the-nation address, leaving Robert Jay QC often struggling to keep him on topic.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown at the Leveson inquiry this morning. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.