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Tuesday, June 12, 2012 

The neurotic returns.

As someone who a couple of weeks ago finally plucked up the courage to read Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party, having not really wanted to bring back all those memories of Tony Blair's last few years, it was ever so slightly difficult to take some of Gordon Brown's testimony at Leveson yesterday seriously. Blair did repeatedly renege on apparent deals or understandings that he would step down as Labour leader, leaving the way clear for Brown, which was partially Brown's motivation for his aides briefing against him; it doesn't however explain Brown's malice against anyone who he felt had either wronged him or was advising Blair to get rid of him, who were also mercilessly targeted. When the tables were turned, such as when Alan Milburn penned an article calling for there to be a contest for leadership of the party rather than a Brown coronation, Brown immediately phoned up Blair blaming him for putting Milburn up to it.

One thing that has defined Leveson so far, the apparent amnesia which afflicts so many once they're under oath, didn't affect Brown, as Andrew Neil noted. The difference was that Brown so often seemed to be trying to tell us that white was in fact black, despite many separate independent sources having previously told us the opposite. He went so far as to say that "he was so obsessed by the newspapers that he rarely read them". This after he had spent much of the first hour of his evidence detailing how the Sun had in his last year of office set out to destroy him, and when as Steve Richards said on Newsnight last night, he was notorious for spending the first half hour he was awake while prime minister reading every newspaper, causing his aides to repeatedly remind him that he was quite possibly the only person in the country to browse all the way from the Daily Star to the FT.

The really sad thing is that this fundamental reliance on being economical with the actualite, as Alan Clark put it, only damaged the rest of his at times gripping testimony. Perhaps his refusal to own up to the briefings or to his role in the attempted coup against Blair is down to keeping something for his still to be written memoirs; if it was instead because he feared that would become the story rather than the other things he wanted to say, then he was deeply mistaken. While most of the sketch writers were sympathetic rather than incredulous as the lobby hacks were, Brown in denial was the overarching theme.

This blunted his attacks on both the Sun and the Conservatives. Despite Tom Newton Dunn tweeting the paper's defence from last year of their story on the then four month old Fraser's cystic fibrosis, it barely bothered today to repeat itself. NHS Fife's statement that a member of staff "spoke without authorisation" of his condition all but confirmed Private Eye's report from last year that it was the partner of a doctor that was the source of the Sun's story, which is not quite the same as the Sun's claim that it received it from a "concerned member of the public". The paper also didn't mention Rebekah Brooks's testimony that she absolutely had authorisation from the Browns to run the story, something repeatedly denied by both Gordon and Sarah, suggesting she is now persona non grata in Wapping.

Brown's highlighting of how the paper repeatedly attacked him over Afghanistan, including notoriously over a condolence letter he sent, was met far more harshly, the Sun calling in a favour from former chief of the defence staff General Dannatt to claim that Brown had to be pushed to increase the troop presence in the country, as though that somehow reflects badly on the former prime minister. Most disgraceful of all is Tom Bower, claiming that because the Browns left Downing Street for the final time arm in arm with their two sons that this use of them as "political props" somehow undermines Brown's evidence on the denied authorisation; how then should they have left? Out the back door that Murdoch was asked to enter through, perhaps?

Regardless of whether or not Brown did tell Murdoch that he was declaring war on his company, and it seems an odd thing for Keith to make up and then tell others had happened, his linking of the Conservatives changing their policy in line with that of News International is hardly the conspiracy theory that George Osborne claimed it was. The Tories' defence that if there was some sort of deal they would hardly have put Vince Cable in charge of authorising the BSkyB bid is laughable: they hadn't expected that they would have to form a coalition, and Cable as business secretary was one of Nick Clegg's few red lines. Osborne was effectively given the benefit of doubt in his often curious evidence purely because he is neither Jeremy Hunt, who squirmed his way through his time under oath, nor his David Cameron, due to give evidence on Thursday. The fact that according to Rebekah Brooks Osborne had been "expressed bafflement" at an Ofcom letter on the BSkyB bid during a dinner in December 2010 was explained by Osborne on the basis that on whatever happened it would annoy some of his pals in the media, therefore he didn't really have a view. This nonsense was allowed to pass all but unquestioned.

As was his evidence on how the Tories came to choose Andy Coulson as Cameron's director of communications. It wasn't that he simply worked for News International and had contacts with those working there; as a "national newspaper editor" he had a wealth of experience, broader than Alastair Campbell, who had never been an national editor. This deserved to be gaped at as some of Brown's testimony had been: Campbell had been a political editor at both Today and the Mirror, whereas Coulson had no speciality in politics whatsoever, hence why he was surprised to be approached by the Tories. Osborne's inquiring into his background also seemed to amount to asking Coulson whether there was anything else to come about the phone hacking, to which he said there wasn't, and asking Brooks whether he was a "good person". She presumably didn't tell Osborne about how Glenn Mulcaire had also been hacking her voicemail, although as we know, Coulson has never so much as met Mulcaire.

Murdoch himself was dealt another blow today when John Major, a man who was clearly fair too humble to ever have been prime minister, confirmed that he was all but offered the support of Murdoch's papers in 1997 if he changed his policies on the European Union. It wouldn't have made any difference to the election result if Major had took up the offer, but it rather punctures Keith's claim that he had never asked anything of a politician. It also led nicely on to Ed Miliband's welcome call for quotas in media ownership, effectively saying that Murdoch should have to either sell the Sun or the Times. The longer this drip drip of allegations and calls for change at News Corp goes on, the more Murdoch is going to hold Cameron's setting up of the inquiry against him. And as Nick Clegg's refusal to support Jeremy Hunt shows, it's getting to the point where the Tories need all the help they can get.

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