A deeply upset Gordon Brown yesterday apologised once again for the errors in a hand-written letter of condolence he sent to Jacqui Janes, the mother of a young soldier killed in Afghanistan
At a sombre press conference in Downing Street - during which he signalled that British troops could hasten withdrawal by moving to an overwatch role in Helmand province in Afghanistan as they had in southern Iraq - a haggard looking Mr Brown said the sentiments in his controversial letter had been genuine.
Mrs Janes had angrily dismissed the Prime Minister’s error-strewn letter on the death of her son Jamie as "disrespectful" and attacked his failure to apologise properly.
It was only by drawing on his own experience as bereaved parent that Mr Brown able to draw a line under the affair after being confronted with the raw emotional anger of Mrs Janes in the published transcript of a telephone conversation he had with her
"I’m a parent who understands the feelings when something goes terribly, terribly wrong, and I understand also how long it takes for people to handle and deal with the grief we have all experienced," said a tired and deep-voiced Mr Brown.
Last night Mrs Janes said she accepted Mr Brown’s apology after 48 hours that left the Prime Minister personally battered and his officials bitterly anger at how The Sun newspaper had "manipulated" the story to make him appear uncaring when he had not intended any offence.
Downing Street officials held that the Sun story was deliberately timed around Armistice Day to inflict maximum damage on the Prime Minister, a charge the newspaper denied.
Advisers to the Prime Minister, grasping for good angle after a bruising few days, said the incident had at least brought to people’s attention that Mr Brown sends a personal letter to the families of all soldiers who lose their lives in action. Downing St also received calls and e mails from the public expressing sympathy for the Prime Minister who had to apologise on Monday for his bad handwriting, the result of his poor eyesight.
Almost lost in the controversy was Mr Brown’s confirmation that by mid-2010, British forces will begin handing over control of some districts of the southern Helmand province to Afghan military leaders and local politicians — a tactic aimed at preparing the way for an eventual withdrawal from the province.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel renewed her call yesterday for a strategy to eventually hand over responsibility in Afghanistan to local forces. Germany has more than 4,000 soldiers serving in Afghanistan in non-combat roles.
At his press conference Mr Brown rejected demands - voiced by former Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells - to adopt a "fortress Britain" strategy by abandoning its mission in Afghanistan and concentrating on homeland security in the UK.
He said it would also be wrong to concentrate purely on al Qaeda by attacking its strongholds in the Pakistani province of Waziristan, while allowing the Taliban to regain control in Afghanistan.
Mr Brown claimed that "half of the leadership of al Qaeda have been eliminated in recent months", but said Britain would be at greater risk if they were once more allowed access to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. He accepted that he faced a huge task to explain to the public how important the mission is. "This is a land that is far away and people have got to know why we are there," he said.
His news conference was held early in No 10 so that its broadcast would not clash with tv images of the bodies of six UK servicemen - five of whom were shot by a "rogue" Afghan policeman- being flown into RAF Lyneham. The cortege was met by hundreds of members of the public who lined the rain-soaked main street of the nearby village of Wootton Bassett in a now familiar ceremony.
The MoD yesterday named a British soldier who died in hospital after an explosion in Afghanistan as Rifleman Samuel John Bassett, 1 Platoon, 4th Battalion The Rifles, serving as part of the 3 Rifles Battle Group. He was injured by a bomb near Sangin, in northern Helmand province on 1 November. He died on Sunday, aged 20.