November 10, 2009 10:06 pm

Brown aims to sway public wavering over war

Gordon Brown tried to demonstrate empathy with the relatives of soldiers killed in Afghanistan as he pledged on Tuesday to do more to convince the public of the necessity of the increasingly unpopular war.

The prime minister struck a markedly personal tone during a press conference dominated by the furore over his alleged misspelling of the surname of a dead soldier in a handwritten letter of condolence to the man’s bereaved mother, Jacqui Janes.

Pollsters suggested on Tuesday that the row’s electoral significance was less about voters’ views on Afghanistan than their take on Mr Brown’s personal attributes, notably his competence and emotional intelligence.

Mr Brown referred obliquely to the death in 2002 of his baby daughter, as he stressed he understood the grief felt by Mrs Janes. “I’m a parent also. I feel the pain of people who lose their loved ones,” the prime minister said on Tuesday.

“I feel for the mother’s grief. I understand the pain that she is going through.” Describing himself as “shy”, the prime minister said he was nonetheless “ready to talk to people round the country” to make the case for the conflict.

As the bodies of six UK soldiers killed in Afghanistan passed through the streets of Wootton Bassett, Mr Brown said the public needed to understand the link between a war in a “land that is far away” and the domestic threat of terrorism. The prime minister’s personal approach appeared to have drawn a line under the condolence letter row, as Mrs Janes accepted Mr Brown’s apology on Tuesday night.

Comments on news websites and blogs suggested a mixed public reaction, with criticism of The Sun tabloid, which has led the charge against the prime minister, matched by attacks on his handling of the war.

“There may be quite a lot of sympathy for Brown [over the letter],” Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, the opinion pollsters, said. “The problem is a wider one, to do with the fact that the Afghanistan war is increasingly unpopular.”

The growing unpopularity of the conflict will not necessarily sway the outcome of next year’s general election, since neither of the two main opposition parties advocates immediate withdrawal.

But the personal qualities of Mr Brown highlighted by the letter row could have a far greater electoral effect.

Focus groups suggest that David Cameron has managed to talk to voters about his own personal tragedy – the death of his son, Ivan, this year – in a way that has eluded Mr Brown. Such emotional communication can influence the public view on far broader political issues.

“Talking in focus groups about attitudes to public services and spending cuts, the fact that people know more about the sadness in David Cameron’s life than in Gordon Brown’s life is a factor in people trusting Cameron more,” said Andrew Cooper, strategic director at Populus, the opinion pollsters.

“Ivan Cameron’s dad wouldn’t cut the health service, they believe.

“We live in an era where it definitely helps for politicians to be rounded in that way. The problem is that [Mr Brown] obviously isn’t comfortable doing it,” Mr Cooper said.

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