Vengeful, brooding and secretive – will Brown become our own Nixon?Dominic Sandbrook
Less than two weeks after one of the high points of his premiership, the G20 summit, Gordon Brownfinds himself caught up in a scandal that encapsulates the grubbiest side of politics. Yet like all truly memorable political scandals, the Damian McBrideemail furore is important for what it reveals about the culture at the heart of government, and about the enduring psychological flaws of the man the smears were meant to benefit.
That man - the Prime Minister - is, in the process, looking increasingly like the Richard Nixonof British politics.
Gordon Brown's admirers have long claimed that he resembled one of the iconic American presidents of the last century: as recently as the G20 jamboree, his aides were presenting him as the new Franklin D Roosevelt, father of the New Deal. The true comparison is with a very different 20th-century president: another brooding, brilliant man, a man of great brains and vision but whose gnawing insecurities, bare-knuckle instincts and taste for dirty tricks were to bring him down.
Thanks to films such as the brilliant Frost/Nixon, Richard Nixon is remembered today as one of the worst presidents in American history. He was the driving figure behind the illegal break-in and surveillance of his opponents' headquarters in the Watergate complex, and a twisted paranoiac whose suspicions reached such depths that he even taped his own Oval Office conversations, providing damning evidence for his accusers.
Yet before the Watergate scandal broke in 1972, Nixon was one of the most popular leaders in American history, a humble Quaker who had made himself the greatest statesman of his age, reaching out to his country's enemies, making a historic trip to China and signing a disarmament deal with the Russians inside the Kremlin itself.
Like our current Prime Minister, he was widely regarded as a talented and bookish man, an intellectual raised in an atmosphere of pious, progressive Christianity, hamstrung only by his awkwardness and reserve in front of the cameras.
Sadly for Mr Brown, the parallels do not end there. When Nixon lost the 1960 election to the rich Boston playboy John F Kennedy, he spent years smouldering with jealousy - just as Mr Brown seethed with envy after Tony Blair snatched the Labour leadership in 1994. In both cases, disappointment left a deep scar that never really healed.
By then Nixon already had the reputation for brutal political campaigning, based on two bruising elections in California in the late 1940s, yet he was never able to live with defeat. As a thin-skinned poor boy made good, he hated the thought of losing out to "those people from the elite", the "Harvard sons of bitches" he hated so much. And the fact that Kennedy's narrow victory came after allegations of massive voting fraud in Texas and Illinois only made the result harder to take - and propelled Nixon further down the path to paranoia.
Nixon, in an attempt to make sure he never suffered again, surrounded himself with thuggish aides who would stop at nothing to confound their master's rivals. Brown, too, has long surrounded himself with hand-picked cronies notable largely for their aggression and ruthlessness.
Nixon had political bruisers like Charles Colson, who hired truck drivers to beat up peace demonstrators, planned to firebomb unfriendly think tanks and boasted that he would drive over his own grandmother to get Nixon re-elected. Mr Brown's own Charlie - Whelan, the spin doctor forced to quit 10 years ago after briefing against Peter Mandelson - was not quite as physically aggressive. But he set the tone for the Brown court's paranoid, macho atmosphere.
Here the Watergate analogy is irresistible. When the scandal broke, it resonated precisely because it exposed a wider climate of poisonous factionalism, traceable not just to the everyday knockabout of democratic politics but to Nixon's obsessive,wounded, suspicious personality.
For while the president might not have ordered the break-in personally, he had created the climate in which it became acceptable, constantly telling his staff to "screw" and "destroy" his opponents. "I really need a son of a bitch who will work his butt off and do it dishonourably," Nixon once told his staff in remarks captured by his secret taping system. "We are going to use any means. Is that clear?"
We might find it hard to imagine the PM mouthing similar sentiments. But talk to anyone who has been close to the Brown court and a disturbingly familiar picture emerges.
After all, the Prime Minister did not employ Damian McBride for his social skills. He knew precisely what he was getting: a brutal hatchet man who would stop at nothing to protect his boss, whether smearing his Tory opponents or putting the boot into Cabinet rivals.
Politics is no place for shrinking violets. And politicians have been using spin doctors since the Greek slaves who advised Roman emperors on their public relations. Hard-bitten Downing Street loyalists of the modern age such as Joe Haines and Bernard Ingham, who advised Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher respectively, were no softies.
Yet even seasoned observers have been shocked by the extraordinary insecurity, negativity and belligerence of the Downing Street snakepit under Brown. Some of it, no doubt, is rooted in the violent ideological battles of the 1980s, as well as the peculiarly aggressive tribalism of Scottish Labour politics. But just as the real author of Watergate was Nixon, so the blame for the McBride scandal ultimately lies with the boss.
Ironically Brown, like Nixon before him, probably never needed to play dirty. In today's dilapidated political arena, he stands out as a genuinely impressive political intellectual, a man of idealism who should never have cheapened himself by associating with the Damian McBrides of this world.
Politics can never be separated entirely from spin. But there is a clear line between public relations and dirty tricks - a line that both Nixon and Brown, for all their great political gifts, seem not to have recognised, as though their antennae, so sensitive in other areas, were no longer working. Perhaps that is the most compelling parallel of all- two glowering men, so brilliant at politics in many ways, yet so inept in others.
The tragedy is that after relying on the hatchet men for so long, the Prime Minister now seems unable do without them. We cannot, it appears, have the good Gordon without the bad.
It is a shame for him, a brilliant and high-minded politician who succumbed to his demons. But it is an even bigger shame for the rest of us, who can only look on in anguish and disgust as one of the greatest Labour politicians of the past 30 years is enmired by his own paranoia and ruthlessness.
* Dominic Sandbrook is the author of Eugene McCarthy and the Rise and Fall of Postwar American Liberalism (Anchor).