Damian McBride: Repentant spinner

Damian McBride is a bastard. And, unusually for a memoirist, he’s very keen to let you know that from the start, writes Helen Lewis.

Power Trip: a Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin
Damian McBride
Biteback, 320pp, £20
 
Damian McBride is a bastard. And, unusually for a memoirist, he’s very keen to let you know that from the start. “I wasn’t always a nasty bastard, but you could argue the signs were there,” he writes in chapter two, and then relates how he ruined an undergraduate football match by repeatedly fouling the other team. By the end of the book, the transformation is complete: “the corrosive nature of our political system . . . slowly ate away my principles, scruples and judgement to the point where someone I’d never met before could call me a bastard and one of my closest colleagues could call me cruel, and I’d almost take those things as compliments”.
 
So what exactly did McBride do that made him so bad? He was Gordon Brown’s spin doctor during Brown’s time at the Treasury and his first two years at No 10, in which capacity he schmoozed, bullied, berated, lied and not-quite-lied relentlessly in the service of his “brilliant” boss. If that doesn’t sound so bad, remember that this is a spinner against whom Alastair Campbellhas taken the moral high ground. (He called McBride’s book “sickening” and the man himself “odious”, adding: “You lied and stole and cheated, you damaged Labour and team players like me had to put up with it.”)
 
McBride started his political career in the civil service, working on tax regulation as an official in Customs. Here, he offers the weirdly fascinating nugget that one of the most progressive possible changes to the tax system would be cutting the VAT on pet food to 5 per cent. “Yep, compared to other options, there’s a hugely disproportionate benefit for pensioners and low-income families with kids,” he tells Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, who were then Brown’s special advisers at the Treasury. In return, they look at him “as if I was an idiot”.
 
He soon parlays his expertise into a role as the head of communications at the Treasury in 2003, from where he volunteers for frontline service in the Blair/Brown wars. Unlike just about everyone else in the party, he sees their conflict as a good thing for Labour. “As long as their feud continued, it was the only political story that mattered,” he writes. “No one else, least of all the Conservative Party, could get a look in . . . A relatively dry policy issue which would barely rate a mention by the newspapers in normal circumstances could be turned into a front-page story for a week afterwards simply by injecting a bit of No 11 fury or No 10 irritation.”
 
Unfortunately this trench warfare persists for so long that everyone gets too good at it; it becomes an end in itself. And although McBride never whispers a word against his patron, it is clear from his account that after so many years scheming against the enemy next door, Brown feels oddly bereft when he moves in there. It reminds me a little of the Comedian in Watchmen going to see his dying arch-enemy, Moloch, and crying real tears. Without anyone to define himself against, Brown was inevitably diminished.
 
Meanwhile, McBride grows ever more monstrous. After Ivan Lewis, then a junior health minister, strays into talking about tax policy, he is slapped down by a “No 10 source” who tells him to stick to his brief. Lewis makes the mistake of telling McBride that such bully-boy tactics don’t frighten him: McBride retaliates with a story about his “supposed pestering of a young civil servant”, planted in the News of the World. It is only when he sees the photo of the woman involved, snatched on her doorstep, that he feels a brief pang of guilt.
 
Later, Harriet Harman overhears him spinning the line that she’s unhappy at not teeing up Brown’s 2008 conference speech, which was intended to bolster the narrative that Sarah Brown’s gushing introduction was a spontaneous, last-minute gesture. “She was naturally furious, given she’d been actively encouraging Sarah . . . what I regarded as harmless white lies designed to tell a wider story often seemed like gratuitous and totally unnecessary slanders if you were on the receiving end.” No shit.
 
After a few hundred pages of this, the reader is left with one question: you say you were a lying bastard then, so why should I trust a word you say now? McBride offers as evidence his Catholic faith, his later work for his old school in Finchley and the charity Cafod, and the assertion that by confession he hopes for redemption. The only trouble is that the book seems a careful construction rather than a warts-and-all unburdening. There is one anecdote about him being drunk at conference, passing out naked in bed and having to be woken up by Ed Balls. Assuming that a “female bedmate was indulging in some amorous play-wrestling”, he pulls Balls on top of him. The future shadow chancellor responds by going to the bathroom and returning with a binful of cold water, which he dumps over the prone adviser.
 
Now, McBride is a canny enough operator to know this story has “newspaper serialisation sidebar” written all over it – it involves a politician you’ve heard of and it sounds slightly saucy without actually being damaging. (It duly appeared as a sidebar in the Mail on Sunday’s buy-up of the book.)
 
Similarly, Power Tripis often as interesting for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. Although it was published just before the Labour party conference, its effect was less that of a neutron bomb and more of a queasy fart. The party’s current reigning duo, Balls and Miliband, appear fleetingly and flatteringly; they are knowledgeable, calm and loyal. McBride even pre-empts the inevitable criticism Miliband will face by including a conversation where Ed cuts off contact with him in disgust over his briefings. “I don’t believe you, Damian . . . I think we are finished,” Miliband tells him, and “something in his voice and tone reminded me of Hal, the computer in 2001: a Space Odyssey”. Yet this “clean break” narrative is undermined when you realise how many of the Brownite loyalists McBride thanks at the end are still close to Miliband: the former special advisers Greg Beales and Stewart Wood work directly for him; the Sunday Telegraph’s Patrick Hennessy has just joined his press team.
 
Meanwhile, a brutal portrait emerges of the lobby, those journalists who have unfettered access to Westminster. They are, in McBride’s telling, like baby birds, constantly cheeping for regurgitated morsels of news or gossip; occasionally one stumbles on a proper story, only to kill it in exchange for something better from the spin doctor’s “back pocket”. But it must be said that the lobby doesn’t think very highly of McBride, either – “pass the sickbag” was Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer’s verdict on the book – and there is no mention of how often the Brown spin machine bullied political journalists who were deemed to be the enemy, or undermined them to their colleagues and employers. Even a repentant spinner, it seems, easily falls into spin again.
Damian McBride. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution