Behind the Black Door
Review by Edwina Currie for the Financial Times, 5 March 2011
Published: March 4 2011
Behind the Black Door, by Sarah Brown, Ebury Press, RRP£18.99, 464 pages
Sarah Brown is a national treasure: mother, wife, icon and general “good egg” (the title of an award from Piers Morgan, we learn). This is in stark contrast to her husband Gordon, now in danger of being airbrushed, even by the party he once led. His memoir of his role in saving the world has sold a few thousand copies. Her diarised account of her thousand days as “WPM” (wife of the prime minister), between 2007 and 2010, is designed to delight her 1m-plus followers on Twitter. If you want a signed copy, all you have to do is tweet her. Honestly.
Sarah Brown’s public relations firm, Hobsbawm Macaulay, was behind the “prawn cocktail offensive” that helped create New Labour. As we know from Derek Draper’s Blair’s 100 Days, the Browns’ first official outing as a couple in 1997 was set up by Charlie Whelan, Gordon’s spin doctor, who arranged for the press to discover the lovebirds in a Soho restaurant. The manager, however, knew the importance of discretion and threw the photographers out; Whelan had to run and fetch them back.
So it is not surprising that Behind the Black Door is a slick production and that it is troubling to find fault. That’s the nature of superb PR. But it’s all spin, every word of it.
We learn about Brown’s personal philosophy: “To look tidy and not fall over”. And her hates and fears: lilies, gerberas, heights. She is a “food weed” – no, I don’t know what it means either. She is terrified of public speaking but makes a heroic effort and becomes a star – in 18 months. What a Cinderella story!
The mask slips the first day in Downing Street when she discovers there is no independent internet, only the Cabinet Office intranet. That changes, sharpish. The WPM is not paid and has no budget for clothes or entertaining, so she arranges to “rent” designer clothes for 10 per cent of their price. Cue bucketloads of product placements. Every outfit is listed, from Jaeger (who left the security tag on a dress, whoops) to Jasper Conran to a “sweet little hat by Misa Harada”, Brian Atwood heels and Garrard’s diamonds: “It helps that I have on a fabulous Graeme Black dress.” Christmas lunch is “a giant ham from Puddledub Pork Farm” or a “Kelly’s Farm turkey ordered via the internet”; the No 10 Christmas wreath is by “McQueens florist”. Gifts for the American nieces are “from Boden, of course”.
Alongside the vulgar comes the banal. “Famous”, “lovely” and “nice” describe everyone worthy of mention; “nice friendly faces” greet “another success for Gordon”. Of course, her job is to support her husband, and her devotion to him I do not doubt. Their two little boys are clearly happy and well-loved. Indeed Sarah seems most natural when with her extended family, where she does not have to perform. Her support of her favourite charities, especially the maternal health campaign, is laudable and genuine, since she lost a child herself, and it continues.
But what makes Brown cry, she reveals, is a well-organised PR event, such as the Lambeth Palace conference of July 2008, which aimed to “Halve Poverty by 2015” – laughable any time but ludicrous amid a global crash. “Not a dry eye in the house” is her approving comment. The Piers Morgan interview with Gordon, during which she was televised weeping in the audience, is described in gruesome detail. The expenses scandal, which made other MPs’ spouses weep, has her reaching for the lever-arch files and the chequebook to repay £153 claimed twice.
This is a steely, determined woman with a good brain and immense self-discipline. So much sadder, therefore, when she airbrushes history. For this is a Dr Pangloss world, in which “taking the politics out of things gives you a truer sense of perspective”. She does not read newspapers. This causes problems, for she missed the row over the huge cost to the taxpayer of running Chequers in early 2007 and was caught on the hop when it resurfaced in late 2009. The banking crisis does get an airing because Gordon came out of it well: “I try to keep up when he [Gordon] talks to me about Ben Bernanke’s thesis on the US depression of the 1930s.” But as Labour polled only 15 per cent in the 2009 European elections, she writes, “Later, Gordon’s press conference announcing the reshuffle goes well.” Really? Andrew Rawnsley’s description (from his 2010 book The End of the Party) of the “smoking wreckage of electoral calamity and abortive coup” is what I remember – but she won’t go there.
By the end the writing is perfunctory, with pages of celebrities invited to Downing Street or swanky dinners with important women and African first ladies. Was this at our expense? Did Sarah ever ask what anything cost or whether the “commitments” were kept or the “investments” paid for? Certainly not. That would have been really stupid.
So the whole discredited bandwagon rolls on. Sarah describes Paris Hilton without irony as “a smart woman who is running a successful enterprise and mostly enjoying herself”. The book will be welcomed by Sarah’s supporters. It has not, alas, turned me into one.
Edwina Currie entered parliament in 1983 on the same day as Gordon Brown. She was a minister of health under Margaret Thatcher