Last year, this column relayed a story about a civil servant who entered a room containing the Prime Minister and narrowly avoided being hit by a missile thrown by Mr Brown at another official who was departing. It occurs to me that when Mr Brown says that he has never hit anybody, he is telling the literal truth: he always misses.
In his claim of lifelong non-violence, Mr Brown is being disloyal to the grand old Labour tradition of thumping people. His protestations leave John Prescott, who punched a voter in the 2001 election, out on a limb, if that is the right phrase. And Neil Kinnock, Labour leader from 1983 to 1992, used proudly to relate an incident in the lavatory of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, in 1981. He was approached there by a youth who aimed a high kick at him, hurting his elbow. The then shadow education secretary retaliated: ‘I beat the shit out of him,’ boasted Mr Kinnock to his biographer Robert Harris. When colleagues went back to the lavatory to investigate, ‘apparently there was blood and vomit all over the floor’.
It must be true — because Mr Brown says it — that he has never hit anyone, but he has laid angry hands upon at least one. In the run-up to the 1997 election, Labour’s Welfare Committee was discussing Mr Brown’s ‘New Deal’, and Frank Field MP said he was not happy with it. Mr Brown came up to the relatively small and slight Mr Field, and shook him by the lapels: ‘Why do you disagree with me?’ he cried, ‘I thought you were my friend.’ ‘It’s because you’re my friend that I am disagreeing with you’, Mr Field is supposed to have replied. In this exchange, much of Mr Brown’s problem is encapsulated.