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Sunday 14 June 2009

They'll be coming to take you away very soon, Gordon

His friends say he won't leave No 10 except in a box, though he may face a quite different exit, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

HERE's a thought to cheer you up. Compared to Gordon Brown, Brian Cowen is a woman-friendly beacon of emotional intelligence with people-handling skills envied throughout the length and breadth of these islands.

It was bad for any ministers, except those in his inner circle of trusties, when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as a boss. But for women it was truly terrible. Yes, Blair was a charming flibbertigibbet who told people what they wanted to hear and he rarely walked his talk, but he was pleasant, completely at ease with women and viewed them as his equals. Or, in the case of his wife, his superior. Brown is a ferocious bully who sees disagreement as disloyalty, deals with it by instigating character assassination and is quite simply a misogynistic throwback. Labour WAGS — or 'Women against Gordon' as they're known — allegedly joke that 'Tony reminds you of the man you wanted to marry. Gordon reminds you of the man you did'.

It was under Tony's benevolent rule that 101 women — the Blair Babes — were elected in 1997courtesy of women-only shortlists, and record numbers promoted, sometimes over-promoted, to ministerial office.

Under Gordon's malign gaze. most of the senior women have walked away. The awkward but able Ruth Kelly from Northern Ireland — a Catholic alienated by the Labour Party's aggressive secular agenda and unhappy with the Brown style, left the Cabinet last September. And, in April and May, Jacqui Smith, whom Brown had promoted from the position of chief whip, at which she was good, to home secretary, at which she was feeble, told the prime minister she would be stepping down after the June elections. So did Beverley Hughes, the children's minister and then, the day of the elections, a furious Hazel Blear stormed out of the Cabinet, wearing a brooch which said 'rocking the boat'. While it was true that both Smith and Blears were in trouble over expenses excesses, so were several men who were getting away with it. What made the tiny, courageous Blears stick it to the prime minister was that he singled out her behaviour as "unacceptable" because she had had the temerity to criticise him and anyway, she can't stand him.

Then there was Caroline Flint, the europe minister, who felt marginalised because, although Brown had promised she could attend Cabinet meetings, he had invited her only once and never paid her any attention.

Rather than giving her the modest sop she sought from the reshuffle after the disastrous elections, he demanded that she prove her loyalty — as he did with Jane Kennedy, an experienced junior minister, who instantly quit. The high-profile Flint wrote an enraged letter of resignation (apparently friends stopped her using the term "sexist pig") and off she took to the TV studios to savage Brown's use of women as "window dressing", as Jane Kennedy denounced his cabal of macho-spinners and smearers.

Ah, say Brown's increasingly desperate defenders, he still has Harriet Harman, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and Yvette Cooper has been promoted and, look, Glenys Kinnock, who is just retiring from being an MEP, has taken over Caroline Flint's job. Harman has her flinty eyes set on taking over from Brown and her pitch is her deep loyalty to the party.

Cooper is married to Brown's best friend, the belligerent Education Secretary Ed Balls, and Kinnock to Brown's mate Neil, one-time leader of the party, who is now pitching for his wife's new employer. Hazel Blears and Caroline Flint are touring the studios again to recant because their seats are under threat, but they can't unsay what they said, and everyone knows the Brown intimidation machine has swung into top gear.

Brown cannot do debate, only confrontation. He cannot relax except among his intimates in front of the sports channel. He has one female loyal aide — also married to one of his chums — and a deeply loyal wife who knew what she was marrying.

He throws mobile phones at secretaries and temper tantrums at anyone who questions him. He has been kept in office by the brilliance of Peter Mandelson, whom in desperation he brought back into government after a bitter feud lasting 15 years. Politicians and journalists are baffled as to why Mandelson wants to prop up the most disastrous PM anyone can remember: the only convincing theory is that he does it to show he can.

One of Brown's close aides said recently and proudly that Brown would not leave Downing Street except in a box — which give some idea of the quality of his friends.

Watching his exhausted face, his loss of contact with reality and his inability to make a decision about anything, the mart money these days in on him being taken away in a portable padded cell by men in white coats.

At least no one expects that fate for Brian Cowen.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards