With an election due by June and the Labour Party trailing the Conservatives in opinion polls, the issue of Brown’s leadership style has moved to the top of the media agenda after a Sunday newspaper reported he had bullied his staff.
“I never instructed a briefing against my chancellor,” Brown told legislators in answer to a question about the comments by Darling.
In a TV interview on Tuesday, Darling said aides to Brown had anonymously briefed media after he told a newspaper in 2008 that economic conditions in Britain were the worst in 60 years.
“I’d done this interview and the forces of hell were unleashed,” Darling said. He made clear he was talking about aides and did not suggest Brown was personally responsible.
Conservative leader David Cameron, who will succeed Brown if his party wins the election, used the comments to attack Brown. “I want to ask why the prime minister and the chancellor are at war with each other,” Cameron told a rowdy parliament.
Brown and Darling sat side by side in the chamber, rubbing shoulders, whispering and smiling at each other – a public display of friendship that was not lost on Cameron.
“Any closer and they’ll start kissing,” he jeered.
Questions about Brown’s working relationships have dominated the political debate since the Observer newspaper published allegations that he had terrified staff by screaming at them and on occasion had physically intimidated them.
Some analysts say that far from damaging Brown, the attacks on his character might help endear him to voters by showing him as a flawed human being, who gets stressed like anyone else.
Since the bullying row erupted, Brown allies have argued that at a time of economic woe Britain needs a forceful leader, and in his interview yesterday Brown took a similar line. “You don’t solve a world recession by being a shrinking violet,” he said, chuckling, before joking that Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill had a worse temper than he did.