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

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.