Inside the bunker

Extraordinary piece in today’s Financial Times about what it’s like inside the Downing Street bunker.

For Downing Street staff, the early morning e-mails from the prime minister can set the tone for the whole day. “People feel permanently under the cosh,” says one with experience of life in the Brown bunker. “It is not an efficient or happy place to work. Gordon’s working methods are chaotic and extremely demanding.”

When things are going badly, the atmosphere sours. Staff with bad news to break say they have developed a tactic to avoid a prime ministerial eruption. “If you go in and appear very angry yourself, the PM can be sympathetic,” says one. It is not just the backroom team who receive regular tongue-lashings. Ministers report being summoned in for a chat and leaving with their ears burning.

Mr Brown, according to his officials, has a particularly volatile relationship with staplers, on one occasion stapling his hand in a moment of rage. On other occasions they become missiles. These incidents suggest a prime minister living on the edge. Some aides fear there will be a “blow up” moment in front of a camera, exposing the prime minister they know in private to the world outside.

What’s amazing — if this account is accurate — is that Brown is maniacally obsessed with newspaper headlines. The article claims that he’s up at 4am, emailing staff about ways of countering the next day’s news. Thus,

The prime minister’s obsession with the daily news cycle demands that he comes up with initiatives at short notice. Hospitals have been called early in the morning to be informed Mr Brown would like to visit.

Whatever he announces may not be fully formed. Relevant ministers admit that even they know little of what Mr Brown intends to say, fuelling Labour MPs’ claims that he is putting tactics before long-term strategy.

Ministers report being woken at dawn by Mr Brown, urging them to get on the airwaves to address the story of the day. A stabbing in south London demands that Mr Brown convenes a “knife crime summit”. A fuel blockade requires an “oil summit”.

I’m genuinely astonished by this, mainly because I fell for the story that Brown, whatever his defects, was a long-term, strategic thinker. The FT portrays him instead as “a prime minister obsessed by the next day’s headlines, working hellish hours, prone to anger, micromanaging the detail of government and slow to take decisions”.