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 Trip is 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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder