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Britain's Gordon Brown lambasted over sloppy condolence note

The prime minister sends handwritten notes to the families of slain British soldiers. When he misspells one mother's name, a mistake attributed to his poor penmanship, an uproar and apologies follow.

November 11, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — It was a simple letter from the most powerful man in Britain. In an age of big political staffs, computers and spell-check, it was written and signed in the prime minister's hand, meant to convey heartfelt condolences to a mother who recently lost her son on the battlefields of Afghanistan.

But the note contained apparent spelling mistakes. And it left an embarrassed Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the defensive, facing a public uproar that forced him to apologize Tuesday for his sloppy handwriting, while scrambling to defend a war increasingly unpopular with the British public.

The letter in question expressed Brown's sympathy to Jacqui Janes over the death last month of her 20-year-old son, Jamie. Unfortunately, in his untidy scrawl, the British leader appeared to address Janes as "Mrs. James" and also to misspell her son's name.

The faux pas might have remained a matter of private chagrin had Janes not taken the letter and turned it over to the Sun tabloid, an avowed opponent of Brown, which promptly published it Monday under the headline "Bloody shame."

Questioned repeatedly about it Tuesday at a news conference, Brown said he was sorry for any offense caused by his epistolary blunder.

"The last thing on my mind was to cause any offense to Jacqui Janes," he told reporters in London during his monthly news conference, which was dominated by questions about the war. He said his goal had been to assure Janes that, "over time, comfort comes from understanding that your son played an important role in the security of your country."

But the imbroglio sharpened an already contentious national debate here over the war in Afghanistan, where 232 soldiers have died since Britain joined the fight in October 2001, and the return of each body seems to inflame the raw mood. After the United States, Britain has the highest number of troops in Afghanistan -- about 9,000, most of them based in the violent south -- and Brown recently committed to sending 500 more.

Though polls show that a majority of Britons back a complete military pullout, either immediately or within a year, politicians of all stripes still pledge support for keeping soldiers there.

But the prime minister's problems in shoring up support for the war now are compounded by the dust-up over his letter to Janes. The criticism was countered by some sympathy for Brown, with many commentators defending his sincerity and noting that his poor eyesight -- he is blind in one eye and has damaged vision in the other -- could easily have contributed to any errors.

They also note that, rare among national leaders, he takes the time to send handwritten letters of condolence.

Brown's apology Tuesday, delivered in a flat voice, included a veiled allusion to the death of his baby daughter, Jennifer Jane, who was born prematurely and died in 2002. "I'm a parent who understands the feelings when something goes terribly wrong," he said. "And I understand how long it takes for people to handle and deal with the grief we have all experienced."

His anguished apology seemed to at last satisfy Janes. "Today he looked sincere," she told the BBC. "He looked humbled."

That was not her reaction when Brown telephoned her Sunday to say he was sorry for the careless handwriting. During the call, which Janes recorded and also turned over to the Sun, Brown sounded flustered as the conversation morphed into an extraordinary dressing-down of the prime minister by Janes over an alleged lack of military equipment in Afghanistan.

"I know every injury that my child sustained that day. I know that my son could have survived, that my son bled to death," Janes told Brown in steely tones. "How would you like it if one of your children, God forbid, went to a war doing something that he thought . . . was helping protect his queen and country, and because of a lack -- lack -- of helicopters, lack of equipment, your child bled to death?"

The Sun, which has already declared its support for the opposition Conservative Party in elections to be held by next June, accused Brown of further insensitivity and of provoking a fight with a bereaved mother.

Janes denied being recruited or used by the Sun to press a political agenda.

"Anybody that knows me will know that there is no way that I can be manipulated by anybody. I chose the Sun purely because the Sun [is] pro-army. It has nothing to do with politics at all."

But her rebuff to the prime minister acted as a conductor for the wider political fight. Even many of those who defended Brown against what they saw as the Sun's hounding noted that the British public remains unconvinced by the stated reasons for their troops to be in Afghanistan. A poll done for the BBC this month showed nearly two-thirds believe that the war is unwinnable and that the military should withdraw.

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