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.

Show Hide image

The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.