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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times