British PM denies hitting staff

LONDON: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he has "never, never" hit anybody as his office dismissed media allegations of staff intimidation which have threatened his pre-election fightback.

Brown admitted to a few solid tackles on the rugby pitch in his youth and throwing newspapers on the floor but said any anger was largely directed at himself, as he geared up for a general election expected in May.

"If I get angry I get angry with myself," the prime minister told Channel 4 television. "I throw the newspapers on the floor or something like that.

"Let me just say, absolutely clearly, so that there is no misunderstanding about that: I have never, never hit anybody in my life."

The Observer newspaper published extracts from a book by columnist Andrew Rawnsley, which contained allegations about Brown's conduct in his 10 Downing Street office.

It alleged there had been a string of incidents, such as shouting and swearing at colleagues and thumping car seats, which left had staff shaken.

The newspaper said that "during one rage, while in his prime ministerial car, Brown clenched his fist in fury after being told some unwelcome news and then thumped the back of the passenger seat."

It added that the protection officer in the seat "flinched with shock" and "the aide sitting next to Brown... cowered because he feared 'that the prime minister was about to hit him in the face'," The Observer added, quoting from an extract.

According to the book, Britain's top civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell, told Brown to change his behaviour after reports that his fiery outbursts had frightened staff.

He reportedly told Brown: "this is no way to get things done."

O'Donnell felt the need "to calm down frightened duty clerks, badly-treated phone operators and other bruised staff" and tell them "don't take it personally", The Observer reported.

However, a spokesman for the Cabinet Office said: "It is categorically not the case that the cabinet secretary asked for an investigation of the PM's treatment of Number 10 staff."

The prime minister's official spokesman said: "These malicious allegations are totally without foundation and have never been put to Number 10."

The Sunday Times newspaper reported that a recent Brown television appearance, in which he showed his softer side, had helped cut the polls lead built up by the opposition Conservative Party.

A YouGov survey for the broadsheet put the Conservative lead at six percent, its lowest for more than a year and small enough to deny the centre-right party an overall majority.

Labour's rating was up two points on last month to 33 percent, with the Conservatives down one at 39 percent. The Liberal Democrats were down one at 17 percent.

Elsewhere, former Conservative prime minister John Major made a rare public attack, accusing Brown's government of having "failed spectacularly".

Writing in The Mail on Sunday newspaper, he said Labour inherited "the most stable and competitive economy in Europe" in 1997 but "over 13 wasted years, our finances have been squandered."

On Saturday, Brown launched "Operation Fightback", saying while he was "not perfect", voters should think twice before ousting him.

Labour announced its campaign slogan would be "A Future Fair For All".

Although official campaigning has not yet started, British politics has taken on an increasingly electioneering tone since the start of the year.