Please Stop This Nonsense Gordon Brown Nostalgia

A refresher on the lowlights of the Brown years.
June 13, 2019, 10:28am
Photo by  Jeff Morgan 05 / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s strange to recall that Gordon Brown once existed; like thinking of a lover years later. What was Gordon Brown? How did we all spend so much time in his company? Could we stroke his curly locks one last time?

From 2019, Gordon Brown is a piece of nostalgia as much as Kate Moss at Topshop, or Donny Tourette on Buzzcocks. So when he turns up in Peterborough to denounce Nigel Farage, It’s easy to romanticise him as a vision of an era of stability – the last moment ‘the adults were in charge’, when politics was deliberately dull stuff, and the prospect of Andrea Leadsom swooping in to lead the country as though she were petitioning to chair the Ladies Association at the Welwyn Garden City Golf Club was not one we had to endure every three years or so. These days a silverback gorilla who increasingly resembles a bust of himself, GB seems like an elder statesman – the last prime minister not to cry during their resignation statement.

Except that this is almost completely wrong. Brown ruled for just as long as Theresa May, and his timeline had an uncannily similar air of End Of Days. Day in, day out, media and public only shook their heads at how it kept going at all: the sense that there was now no meat left in the political sausage, only thick grey gristle. So please enjoy this refresher on his lowlights.


Saatchi & Saatchi – the ad agency famous for working with Thatcher – were drafted in to make Brown appear presentable for a planned snap election in late 2007. They decided to deliberately emphasise his dullness with the semi-tragic “Not Flash. Just Gordon” campaign. From now on, when you thought of Gordon Brown, you were meant to think of someone who was still boring – but actually inexplicably likeable because of it.


Like May, Brown’s time in Number 10 was largely defined by his own side constantly telling each other that he was electoral poison, then accidentally stabbing themselves in the face as they tried to knife him in the back.

At the 2009 EU elections, Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell resigned from the Cabinet at 10PM just as the polls closed, denouncing Brown’s leadership and calling for a fresh party election.

Purnell’s shattering blow was meant to be the starting gun on a fresh wave of resignations, as minister after minister finally plucked up their courage. Cue… nothing.

David Miliband had already bottled one challenge against Brown when he became leader. Now, he bottled resigning as Foreign Secretary. Six months later, he sent out a tepid note in support of Brown during an attempted coup by senior ministers Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt. Purnell was so dismayed that he left politics completely less than a year later.


The Lisbon Treaty was the biggest update to the EU constitution in 20 years. A fact confirmed by the showy signing ceremony – where, outside a vast monastery in Lisbon, each head of state signed the Treaty in front of a massive LCD screen displaying their national flag.

Except Gordon Brown. Realising how toxic Europe was back home, Brown invented a reason to return to Britain (he had to appear before a committee of MPs), then arranged to sign it several hours later, separately. This fooled precisely no one. But as a sign of his political anti-Midas touch in action, this “If you can’t see them, they can’t see you” side-swerve was only too poetic.


As "Not Flash. Just Gordon" implied, one key feature of the Brown years was the PM vacillating between attempts to own his lack of charisma, and attempts to overcome it. Nowhere is the distinction more sublime than in a video he did for the then-novel medium of “YouTube”, where Brown attaches a cheesy rictus grin at the end of every sentence, like he’s constantly hitching up an ill-fitting pair of britches.


There’s making policy on the hoof (common to all failing governments), and then there’s having your policy dictated to you in public by Patsy from Ab Fab (less common). Joanna Lumley had been campaigning to win full settlement rights for Nepalese Gurkhas when she was booked on TV alongside Immigration Minister Phil Woollas. After a low-speed chase across a TV studio, Lumley cornered the reluctant minister, then in front of the rolling cameras, staged an impromptu press conference where she spoon-fed Woollas his lines one by one, stating “what they had agreed”, then waiting for Woollas to nod abjectly in compliance.


Brown was already the subject of dark rumours over his temper, after reportedly throwing a mobile phone at one advisor. (When asked about this in PMQs, he replied: “All complaints are dealt with in the usual manner.” In early 2010, when then-Business Secretary Peter Mandelson denied these rumours on the BBC, National Bullying Helpline head Christine Pratt was so incensed that she emailed the Beeb to point out that her organisation had taken several calls from inside Number 10. This was, of course, also a flagrant breach of confidentiality, which led to the resignation of all the charity’s official patrons, and the end of the NBH a year later.


We all remember Brown’s final act: catching a hot mic to call Ordinary Labour Voter Gillian Duffy a “bigoted woman” and losing himself an entire election in the process. But looking at the clip now, perhaps the most telling aspect is that Brown gets back in the car, and immediately says: “That was a disaster... Whose idea was that? It was Sue, I think.” Brown’s closest aide Sue Nye is about to be thrown under the bus, but Brown tumbles under it first.