Tom Parry on Gordon Brown's end-of-mandate makeover

Britain's dour Scot, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, displays his family side.

As every politician knows, there is an inherent risk in mixing your personal and professional lives.

For almost every photograph of the smiling family man hugging his wife and kids as he makes his run for office, there's that embarrassing news conference at which sins are confessed and a political career is left in ruins.

If playing the family card is invariably dangerous, so too is the urge to "open up to voters" and show "the human side" of a political leader. So, it was odd last week to see British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gamble on both.

In his long political career, the Scottish Brown has been all business. His public utterances for the most part focus on policy and policy alone. Glimpses into his personal life are rare.

As for his family, Brown was once famously quoted as saying, "My children aren't props. They're people."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown addressing a conference on social care in February 2010. ((Lefteris Pitarakis/Reuters))

But now, it seems, with an election call only weeks away, Brown has reconsidered.

Last week, Brown appeared on television with interviewer Piers Morgan, a former tabloid editor now known for his one-on-one chats with celebrities.

Powerful TV

In the course of their wide-ranging conversation, Brown talked openly about his marriage and about one of the darkest moments of his life, the death of his baby daughter, Jennifer, in 2002.

With his wife, Sarah, watching tearfully, Brown recounted in painful detail how Jennifer died just days after she was born.

"We sometimes say, 'Well, why, why, why, why us? Why did this happen to us?'" Brown said, seemingly close to tears.

As television, it was powerful, moving and, in some ways, difficult to watch. The pain that Brown and his wife felt — and still clearly feel — seemed heartfelt and obvious.

But it was the timing of the interview that has Brown's critics fuming. His Labour government is at the end of its mandate. Brown must call an election by June, with many suggesting the vote could come as early as May 6.

To Labour's opponents, Brown's attempt to open up and show his human side with a confessional interview is nothing less than cynical politics.


As an editorial in the Times put it "Mr. Brown has catapulted his personal life into politics just a few weeks before an election. That is unbecoming of him: as a prime minister and as a man."

Of course, it is how voters respond to Brown's softer side that is the open question.

Conservative Leader David Cameron during a speech at the University of East London in February 2010. ((Andrew Winning/Reuters))

Last year, Brown's main political rival, Conservative Leader David Cameron, won enormous public sympathy when his son Ivan passed away at just six years of age.

Ivan had suffered from severe disabilities and, through his short life, Cameron never hid him from view.

At times, the Tory leader's critics accused him of using his son as a political prop. But when Ivan died there was a universal acknowledgement of the Camerons' suffering and respect for the quiet dignity of their grief.  

Mind you, a year later that wave of good will is a distant memory. Cameron's Tories still lead Labour in the polls. But that lead has been slipping and old criticisms of the Tory leader have resurfaced.

In the language of political pundits, Cameron has not sealed the deal with voters.

In a society still sharply divided along class lines, Cameron's opponents have latched onto his privileged background to portray him as aloof and out of touch.

Voters may have felt sympathy for Cameron when he lost his son, but that doesn't mean they'll vote for him to be the next prime minister.

Minor victories

It's into this turgid political drama that Brown has now leapt with his heart on his sleeve.

After more than a dozen years in power, a tired Labour government's best hope may be that voters finally decide they can like their prime minister.

Brown has enjoyed a string of minor victories lately. The British economy has clawed its way, feebly, out of recession. Brown has hosted an international conference on Afghanistan and overseen a historic devolution of police and justice powers to Northern Ireland.

At the same time, under his watch support for Labour shrunk, ministers openly called for his head, the economy went into free fall and British politicians of every stripe have seen their reputations trampled by a scandal over their parliamentary expense accounts.

Luring back voters with a show of humanity may look to Labour like a winning strategy. Even if it is only to deny Cameron's Conservatives their shot at a majority.

Still, there is that risk that the overly personal element brings to public life.

Brown revisiting a moment of abject pain is heart-wrenching to behold.

On television, the look on his face as he talks about his baby daughter brings to mind the image of an agonized David Cameron, his arm around his weeping wife the morning after they lost their son. 

The suffering of both families is almost unimaginable, particularly for anyone with children.

At the same time, if for one moment voters think that suffering is being used for political purposes, their anger and disgust will be absolute.

Labour's Brown is widely seen a decent man. And exploiting the memory of his daughter may have been the last thing on his mind when he agreed to his tell-all interview. He just better hope voters see it that way, too.