Behind the Black Door

Sarah Brown’s memoir of public relations.

I first met Sarah Brown in Margaret Thatcher's bedroom. Our children were playing in a sea of toys beneath long floral curtains chosen by Norma Major - a play date organised by that unlikely nanny Damian McBride. When we decided we wanted some tea, a multilayered silver tray appeared full of fancy little cakes, courtesy of some sort of diplomatic gathering downstairs. I glanced at the wife of the then chancellor over the trolley (trying to shake an image of Mrs Thatcher in the en suite bathroom), looked at the children disappearing among the toys in this ad hoc nursery and thought: your life is surreal.

That surrealism pervades Mrs Brown's memoir of life at No 10 Downing Street. Gordon rescues HBOS; Sarah is off to a charity auction. James Purnell resigns and Gordon's leadership totters - and the family is kept awake all night by rehearsals for Trooping the Colour. Mrs Brown discusses the death of the Big Brother star Jade Goody with a concerned Jesse Jackson Jr, and growing vegetables with Michelle Obama. A family summer holiday lasts six hours before a foot-and-mouth outbreak calls the PM back to London. A DBE intended for Graça Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, gets mixed up with a big shiny card made for her by the young John Brown. On a visit to Glastonbury to promote the international White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, Mrs Brown has to take police protection, noting wryly: "I can't believe this will make me the most popular person at a music festival."

This is a domestic take on politics; the collision of the political with the personal. At one point, Sarah is woken at 5am and told by her husband to prepare to leave No 10 that day if the banking rescue package has the wrong impact. And when they do hurriedly leave, on 11 May 2010, the kids have to be reassured that their favourite duvets will soon follow them. There is a sweet story about Fraser telling his dad that when he grows up he wants to be a builder, a teacher and a dad. "Then he looked at Gordon and said, 'But you are just a dad.'"

The Prime Minister appears in the book as an occasional character, always kind and loving, always caring for his family, always dutiful to them and the nation - yet his appearance in the flat or at a family holiday, or chasing Sarah in circles around No 10 to try to catch a moment with her, only serves to underline the awkwardness of the lifestyle. In the midst of an idyllic summertime in Scotland last year, visiting friends and family and having children's sleepovers, "Gordon set down his perspective on the global financial crisis". The disconnect jars and is sometimes funny.

Much of the diary is told in a naive style - the wide-eyed child not quite believing that she is there. There's a touch of the John Major about Sarah Brown's style, with "I immediately joke", "needless to say" and "terrific" mugs of tea. If it's a little banal, there is a personal honesty, too - she talks, for instance, of being afraid to "make a giant fool of myself" when she has to speak at the British Fashion Awards.

This fear of public speaking - together with a sharp awareness of the number of highly glamorous women she has to appear next to - pervades the diary. Michelle Obama greets her with "At last, a normal-size person". Brown worries about her weight (a little), about her dresses (a lot), and about falling down in high heels (from time to time). "I am off again," she writes on 28 January 2010, "to fulfil my destiny of being photographed with every supermodel on the planet." She gets hair and make-up to "do their best for me" before being snapped next to Elle Macpherson.

The lack of budget for her wardrobe is a perennial complaint, not because Brown wants a cupboardful of designer dresses, but because she has to have endless outfits to wear in public - "there is a great call for a different outfit for every occasion" - and the failure to provide any financing for this (she is not allowed to receive gifts of clothes, either) underlines the vagueness of the position of what she calls WPM, Wife of the Prime Minister: "I have no exact status, no official position, masses of conflicting expectations both internally and externally, and a terrible suspicion that at any moment a great mistake will be made by ME!"

She has two staff, which "expands to a grand total of five" when she arranges the spouses programme for the G20 summit (the Obamas bring 500). On occasions, she is so exhausted that she faints and once has to be revived with Prince William's emergency oxygen - carried with him wherever he goes.

This lack of financial support for the WPM's office also adds piquancy to the indignant account of the small errors revealed in her husband's parliamentary expenses. As she notes, the family is significantly out of pocket from their position - "there are many costs associated with this job that are never reimbursed". One suspects that a reason for writing this book is to recoup some of those: the family is not wealthy.

Occasionally, Sarah Brown the former PR professional peeks through the curtain of famous names. There is a sharp awareness of the media: she notes a positive column about her husband's handling of the financial crisis by Paul Krugman in the New York Times; shows an inside knowledge of the political make-up of the Guardian's senior editors; and knows which video clips receive most hits on the Downing Street website (Maggie Darling's cat). Mostly, the media are present as a pest: relentless, hostile, intrusive, untrustworthy and dehumanised. The attention affects her friends, family and even her sister-in-law's children, who are bullied because their parents shared a cleaner with the Browns.

Sarah Brown signs up for Twitter (she now has over a million followers) in part so that she can show people a little of her daily life without having it twisted by the media - and because the WPM has no personal budget for communications. Like that decision, and like her tweets (and like that first play date in Mrs Thatcher's bedroom), this memoir, for all its personal glimpses, is ultimately a work of public relations.

First, it isn't a real diary: it was compiled last summer from notes, emails, letters and her schedule. Second, it is so full of "thank yous" - from the chap who agreed to let her have a venue at the last minute for some occasion to the 12 pages of acknowledgements at the end, from the son of the director of PiggyBankKids to Michelle Obama and the No 10 gardeners - that you sometimes feel you have wandered into a bridegroom's speech. But then, this is precisely the sort of thing that is genuine Sarah Brown - the thoughtfulness and the courtesy that prompted Piers Morgan, of all people, to surprise her publicly with a "good egg" award. Third and most important, political events and what must have been some fairly traumatic personal moments are so airbrushed as to leave the diary feeling a little empty, despite all the busy celebrity engagements and official trips overseas.

Shortly after entering No 10, Brown writes: "I believe that part of my role as WPM is to make an often extraordinary life as ordinary as possible for myself, my husband and my children. I intend to be good at that." And now she has done it for the rest of us, too.

Behind the Black Door
Sarah Brown
Ebury Press, 464pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide