Since the days of Richard Nixon and the Watergate Scandal, the classic question for politicians thought to have messed up or engaged in some less than wonderful behaviour has been: what did you know and when did you know it? Nixon, a man with some significant character flaws who was in other respects a very interesting cove, it will be recalled, came a cropper not through having advance knowledge of the activities of the burglars who broke into the Watergate Building but through taking part in the subsequent cover-up.

I mention the question since it was effectively one which Andrew Marr put to Gordon Brown in last Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show. At the Bar when getting stuck into prosecuting some Low-Life, I tended to ascribe them to one of three categories: those who were not ‘at it’ (ie the innocent or more often those against whom there was not much evidence); those who were ‘at it’ (ie those bang to rights for something but not obviously a one-man crime wave); and finally those who were ‘well at it’ (ie the one-man crime waves). I was reminded of this as I watched Gordon Brown answer, or rather evade Marr’s question on the matter of Northern Rock. I reproduce here with due acknowledgement to the BBC the transcript of that part of his interview:

ANDREW MARR: When I asked you about the election you started off by talking about the economy. Can I ask you directly when you yourself first knew about the Northern Rock problems?

GORDON BROWN: Well, what happens is that there’s a tripartite committee as you probably know – The Bank of England, the Financial Services Authority and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. And of course I’d become aware that the tripartite committee is meeting. But these are matters that are…

ANDREW MARR: So when did that happen? How did you know about that?

GORDON BROWN: Well there’s been issues being raised about the financial… you see, what happened is, in America we had the mortgage market in trouble. That spread through to Germany. It was bound to have an effect on every advanced industrial economy.

So the tripartite committee, which actually I set up in 1997, continues to meet on a regular basis to look at all financial issues. And it’s at that point that people will become aware of any instances where there is a possibility of an insolvency problem, or a liquidity problem.

ANDREW MARR: And then at what point, is what I’m asking?

GORDON BROWN: The point was when the tripartite committee was meeting and sorting out these issues.


GORDON BROWN: Yes but it kept meeting right from the point, all these issues are dealt with on a regular basis.

ANDREW MARR: It’s just that there is a suspicion that the government knew about this quite a while before everybody else did, and that therefore if quicker action had been taken you wouldn’t have had those queues outside Northern Rock and the run on the bank.

GORDON BROWN: No, I don’t accept that at all. I mean…

ANDREW MARR: It couldn’t have been stopped earlier?

GORDON BROWN: No, I don’t accept that at all. What you’ve got is a continuous group of people meeting on a regular basis to look at financial issues. And that is a change we made from 1997.

ANDREW MARR: And if they keep getting it wrong, we know they got it wrong because we know there was a U-turn.

GORDON BROWN: What happened was, we wanted to guarantee the deposits of savers in a way that didn’t, if you like, create a moral hazard.

And what we found was that the right thing to do was to guarantee the deposits of savers of Northern Rock. But of course we know that that has ramifications for the whole of the financial system.

It was at this point that I sat up. Watching, I became aware that his body language was of a type I have seen all too often in the dock and in the cells of a man who has been ‘well at it’. It was so striking that I posted on ConservativeHome and Iain Dale about it almost immediately. The interview may be found here and the Transcript here.

Even dry on the page as it is, it reads like a little boy who has done something unfortunate in his pants but is too ashamed to ask to be excused.

I am convinced that behind this there are facts which would reveal that the Prime Minister’s and the Chancellor’s handling of this affair has been less than brilliant and that they are determined that we should not know what a terrible mess they made. Almost the only positive thing he can do is repeat, almost ad nauseam, the psittacine mantras of how wonderful everything has been since 1997 and financial stability. The rest is pure, unadulterated, gold-plated, round the houses, prevaricatory waffle.

Brown was then asked about the position of Mervyn King:

ANDREW MARR: Mervin King ruled out what he then had to do. Is his position tenable?

GORDON BROWN: Mervin King has been a brilliant governor of the Bank of England, just as Eddie George before him. And I’m very proud that the system that we created in 1997 at the Bank of England, has moved Britain from being, if you like, the most volatile economy.

Just, just remember in the 80s and the 90s the stop-go recessions when interest rates had to be pushed up sometimes to 15%, and just look now as a result of the new system – we’ve had ten years where we’ve had stability. Mervin King was deputy governor under the regime of Eddie George, and is now governor. And I think…

ANDREW MARR: Can he continue as governor?

GORDON BROWN: Well I think the record that the Bank of England under both Eddie George and Mervin King has been one where we’ve got low inflation, we’ve got low interest rates, and we’ve got a record of stability that I think is unparalleled now in the industrial world.

ANDREW MARR: Would you like to see him continue as…

GORDON BROWN: He is continuing as the Governor of the Bank of England.

ANDREW MARR: But he, I mean his being reappointed.

GORDON BROWN: Well, that’s a matter for them.

It is almost as if he cannot bear to speak Mervyn King’s name. And at the end of talking about the Bank the First Lord of the Treasury, who might be thought to have just a teensy-weensy bit of influence in the matter, simply throws up his hands when asked about reappointing King and does his ‘Not, me Guv!’ routine. Macavity is plainly planning to go walkabout again.

Finally, Marr put to him that the Conservative’s contention that it is he who has encouraged the vast private indebtedness that now holds in thrall almost the entire nation:

ANDREW MARR: The Conservative Party makes the point, a fair point, that we have £1.4 trillion worth of private debt now in our economy. A massive amount. Now that happened on your watch.

Do you accept any responsibility for the fact that we are such an indebted society? I’m not talking about government debt at this moment, I’m talking about a private debt.

GORDON BROWN: Well what the Conservatives are talking about is large numbers of people who have been able to take mortgages and buy their homes for the first time.

ANDREW MARR: And buy other things with mortgages too.

GORDON BROWN: But hold on. That is a good thing, not a bad thing. I think an analysis of what’s happening in the British economy where it is possible for more and more people, nearly two million more people, to become homeowners under a Labour government and therefore to take out mortgages, and to have interest rates that allow them to afford these mortgages, is something that is a gain and not a loss. And therefore you’ve got to look at the economy as a whole.

So there you have it. Gordon Brown has kept growth going in two ways: firstly by an enormous increase in public spending, a fair chunk of which then trickles down into the economy and secondly by encouraging people to buy houses which in turn will promote all the purchasing that is necessary for home-making, furniture, fixtures and fittings, white goods and the like, which also primes the growth pump.

The strategy: tax them and get them into debt, then frighten them with a whole lot of old wives’ tales about the wicked Tories who will rack up inflation and interest rates and close every hospital in the land. Who then would dare vote Conservative?

What was so striking about this interview was just how evasive Brown became even though the interview was fairly typical Marr stuff, not exactly pressing the point Paxo-style when Brown showed every sign of answering any question but the one asked. This was, surely, a man with a very large something to hide.

I urge you to watch the interview itself whilst it is still on the BBC’s website. You will see there a Felon who has been, as I say, ‘well at it’.