When Silvio Berlusconi Met Gordon Brown: A Christmas Shaggy Dog Story

Sometimes, rarely, you meet leaders who turn out to be every bit as unfit for office as you had imagined

29/12/2017 15:10 GMT | Updated 29/12/2017 15:10 GMT
Alessia Pierdomenico / Reuters

It seems extraordinary that next year could, just maybe, see the return to power of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.  Which would be remarkable in many ways.  Berlusconi is 81.  He has faced a legion of accusations of corruption, and been embroiled in a number of sex scandals.  Oh, and in 2013 he was sentenced to (though never served) four years in prison for tax fraud and banned from holding public office for six years.  Yet last month he began an appeal against his ban at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, hoping to have it overturned in time for the upcoming Italian general elections in March.

Like many, I am no fan of Berlusconi or his politics. Unlike most, I have had the dubious pleasure of meeting him a few times when I worked for Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  Each meeting sticks in the memory.  But one meeting in particular stands out, and serves to remind me of the nature of the man who is trying to make the most audacious political comeback of them all.

On 19 February 2009, Gordon Brown travelled to Rome for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. While there, Gordon invited the Pontiff to visit the UK either later that year or early in 2010 – thinly veiled code for “before the 2010 election”. The Vatican’s response was warm to the general idea, but lukewarm on timings.  (In the end, His Holiness did indeed come to the UK in 2010 – in September, hosted by the new Prime Minister, David Cameron.)

As Gordon’s special adviser on European affairs at the time, I remember that day well.  In part because meeting the Pope, at his gaffe, is the kind of event that sticks in your mind – a moment you tell yourself not to forget when the Downing Street pass is eventually taken away from you, and you return to normal civilian life with memories and mementos.

But the main reason I remember that day is for what came next. 

On the way back to London, Gordon had been invited for a lunch with Berlusconi, who was in his third spell as Italian Prime Minister. Gordon was in the middle of the most important and energetic diplomatic offensive of his career, travelling the world to persuade leaders to back his plan to kick-start the world economy after the previous year’s financial crash.  Gordon was, to put it mildly, a Berlusconi sceptic.  But as leader of one of the Big Four EU economies, the Italian PM’s backing for the G20 plan was necessary, and a quick lunch with Silvio while we were in town was important to help secure his goodwill and support.

It wasn’t a quick lunch. We were ferried up to a wonderful palace on a hill overlooking Rome. (I tried to look up which one, but there are about 40 contenders, so I gave up.)  Berlusconi, his team, some Italian military and photographers were waiting for us, and we were ushered into a stunning, grand dining room, with breath-taking views over the city.

The food was delicious. The wine was excellent.  My colleagues and I were slightly kicking back after a day that had begun with my alarm going off at 3.45am back in London. As usual in meetings with Berlusconi, the conversation enjoyed an erratic trajectory.  Gordon’s laser-like focus on the economic crisis facing the world, and the detailed policy responses needed to correct course, were met with the typical range of Berlusconi characteristics – detachment, disinterest, light-heartedness, pet subjects of only occasional relevance to the agenda, and a habit of smiling and winking affectionately at members of Gordon’s team across the table. 

It was a gentle clash of cultures, the Son of the Manse meeting the King of Bunga Bunga. Brandy arrived.  Cigars were offered. The Presbyterian Team Brown was both embarrassed and quietly excited by the small dose of opulence we were enjoying.  As the lunch was drawing to a close, Gordon suggested he and Berlusconi chat briefly about what agreed statement they should give to the journalists waiting outside.  We put down our napkins, packed our briefcases and prepared to get up to leave.

At which point Berlusconi began to tell a story from his past.  I sensed after a few seconds that it was going to be something memorable, and taking advantage of the fact that it was being translated into English by the interpreter in real time, line-by-line, I was able to write some of it down in note-form.

Alessia Pierdomenico / Reuters

Here is my recollection of what Berlusconi said:

“Gordon, before we issue the press statement, I have to tell you a story about why I love your country so much.  Don’t worry, it won’t take long. [It took 20 minutes.]

“When I was a very young man, I spent a summer in Paris. Believe it or not, I was an avid wrestler in those days. [Berlusconi makes a Popeye-ish show of strength by clenching his fists and extending his elbows.]  On my way to practice, I regularly passed a young girl who was absolutely beautiful.  I started to wait around to see her, smile and say hello.  After a while we began to exchange a few words when we saw each other. She was a 17-year old English girl, spending the summer with her parents in Paris. I was completely infatuated with her.

“I decided to summon up the strength to suggest going on a date with me. It was a beautiful late summer’s day when I saw her in our usual meeting place, and I steeled myself to ask her out.  As I approached her, I saw she was crying. “Whatever is wrong, dear?”, I asked.  “Oh, Silvio”, she replied. “My father is going back to England early, and I have to go with him. I fear this is the last time we will meet, and that I will never see you again”. 

“I was devastated. “My darling”, I replied, “let’s make this a day to remember”. So we went for a walk in the Jardin du Luxembourg.  We walked, laughed and cried – it was a wonderful day.  I’ll never forget it. 

“As darkness approached, I offered to walk her back to her apartment, where I would say goodbye to her for the last time.  Crossing the road, she fell and twisted her ankle, and found it impossible to walk back home.  Gordon, I was strong in those days. [Berlusconi repeats his Popeye-ish show of strength by clenching his fists and extending his elbows, again.]  So I picked her up, and started to carry her towards her home, which was about a kilometre away. I was crying and sweating, and she was lying in my arms in pain and in tears.

“On the way back to her apartment building there was a flower stall that I regularly passed.  I put her down on a park bench and ran to the flower stall.  I said to the woman who ran the stall: “Madame, I know this will sound like an odd request. I desperately need one of your beautiful bouquets, but I fear I have no money on me.  However, I am a man who is going places, and will make a success of myself. If you give me a bouquet now, I promise you I will never forget, and it will be well worth your while.” She smiled and gave me the flowers.  I ran back to the bench, handed the English girl the flowers, picked her up, and resumed our journey to her home.

“When we got there I had to carry her up two flights of stairs.  We approached the door of her family apartment.  I knocked, the door opened, and with both of us in tears I delivered her to her father, and kissed her goodbye.  That night I walked through the streets of Paris, distraught at saying goodbye to a girl I really felt I loved, but elated at the day we had spent together.”

[At this point in the story, Berlusconi paused, picked up his glass, and took a long sip. A few of us on the UK side of the table thought the story was over – including Gordon, who slid his chair back thinking it was time to get on with the press statement. Outside the room, Helen, the no.10 head of events, was furiously texting me, asking what in God’s name was delaying us.  But just as we were about to stand up...]

“Fast forward 40 years”, Berlusconi resumed, making rotating motions with his forefingers to signal the rapid passage of time. “I become Prime Minister of Italy.” [A big smile.] “One day, a personal letter is brought to my attention. It is from England. It begins: “Dear Silvio – I wonder if you remember me. I have been following your amazing success from afar.  And I can’t quite believe you are now Italy’s Prime Minister.  Can it really be true?”

“Yes Gordon, it was the same English girl I used to knew from those days in Paris.  Can you believe it?

“Immediately I contacted her and invited her to visit me in Rome.  I was quite nervous to meet her again after so many years. I got a new suit [Berlusconi points to his suit], I had my hair done [Berlusconi strokes his hair, which was purple], I prepared one of the grandest rooms at my Residence in which to receive her. And then the day arrived.  I stood nervously in the room, as my staff ushered her in.

[Another pause, more dramatic than the last.  Helen’s texts continued to ping on my phone.  But we were enthralled now.  Would it be a romantic ending?  Would there be tears when he saw his English Rose again?]

“Gordon: she had changed so much. She was so much older. I couldn’t believe it.  We had tea, a pleasant conversation, and I said goodbye.

“So the moral of the story Gordon is this: never go back to your old flames.”

The story was over.  We all sat in stunned silence for a few seconds. I had expected a story with a moral that spoke to something important and relevant to why we had met that day – the state of relations between Italy & Britain, perhaps, or a metaphor for how we might work across national boundaries to ward off the evils of global recession. 

Instead we had heard the Italian Prime Minister tell an extraordinary shaggy dog story that ended not with a bang but a misogynist whimper, a masterclass of storytelling, but one that succeeded only in parading his own shallowness and unpleasantness.

Then Berlusconi clapped his hands together, stood up, and announced: “Now for the press statement”.

A few minutes later we were saying goodbye to Berlusconi and his team, climbing into our cars, and driving to the airport.  As we made our farewells, Berlusconi clasped each of our hands fulsomely with both of his. Somewhere near the airport, still reeling from Berlusconi’s shaggy dog story, I realised that my hand smelt of coconut.  Berlusconi’s perfumed hand lotion had rubbed off on mine, and a small piece of the Italian Prime Minister was about to wing its way back to Heathrow with me. 

The truth is that when you work for a Prime Minister, part of you is a professional who (hopefully) adds a bit of value along the way, a very minor protagonist in the national and international events of the day.  But part of you is a spectator on history, fortunate to have a perch from which to witness moments and meet figures that will define eras. 

Some of those moments are grand, magnificent ones, redolent with gravitas and seriousness, in which you feel overawed and blessed to be in the room with great, inspirational leaders.  But some are just remarkable without being significant, because you can’t believe you are where you are, seeing what you are seeing, and hearing what you are hearing.  And sometimes, rarely, you meet leaders who turn out to be every bit as unfit for office as you had imagined.

I associate the smell of coconut with that day now.  It reminds me of the extraordinary excitement and privilege of having done the job that I did for one Prime Minister.  And it reminds me of another who really shouldn’t be let anywhere near public office again.

Lord Stewart Wood is a Labour peer and former adviser to Gordon Brown