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

Flickr/Nic Gould
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Why haven't we heard more about the allegations of Tory election fraud?

Police and prosecutors have joined a probe into election fraud allegations that could erase the Tory majority.

The facts

The Conservative Party is facing accusations of breaking election spending rules during its 2015 campaign. Following a Channel 4 investigation, it has admitted to failing to declare more than £38,000 of expenses, money it says was spent on accommodation for Tory activists.

It’s up to the Electoral Commission, which met this week with prosecutors and police forces, to decide whether or not to launch criminal investigations into this spending.

Allegations that the money benefited campaigns in individual seats have put the Tories in hot water – they may have illegally exceeded the constituency-specific spending limit. Making a false spending declaration in an election carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and/or an unlimited fine, and anyone found guilty is also barred from running in a general election or holding any elected office for three years.

But the party claims that, as the money was spent on “BattleBus” activists who were driving around the country, it counts as national spending from HQ, rather than being part of individual candidates’ spending.

The Electoral Commission, Crown Prosecution Service and representatives of 15 police forces met this week to discuss the claims. This has resulted in extra time being allowed (an extension on the 12 months allowed under the Representation of the People Act) for relevant police forces to decide what action to take.

Up to 29 Conservative candidates are thought to have benefitted from “BattleBus” campaigning, many of whom were fighting marginal seats.

As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reported yesterday:

“It will be interesting to see if they actually start naming constituencies where they think offences may have occurred. That would then put elected MPs, Conservative MPs, in the frame.

“And indeed, if they were to look at all the constituencies that we’ve been making allegations about over the last few months, it could actually endanger the government’s majority in the House of Commons.”

The conspiracy claims

So why haven’t we heard about this? It undermines the credibility of the entire Tory general election campaign. The claims could even constitute a scandal that would trigger by-elections across the country and potentially erase the Tory majority. The Tories have a working majority of 18, so if they lost in 18 by-elections (were at least 18 MPs to be found guilty), then they would lose their majority.

Some, particularly online leftwing voices, have accused the media of conspiring not to cover this story. Our rightwing press and the cowardly BBC, they argue, are ignoring a story that could potentially call the Conservative general election victory into question.

Anger about this story being low on the political agenda is understandable. It hasn’t been prominent, considering it could result in prosecutions (indeed, the Devon and Cornwall police force is reportedly already investigating, following its meeting with the Electoral Commission). And if, say, The Sun were a left-leaning paper, it probably would have framed it in a dramatic way that would have grabbed readers’ attention.

But there isn’t a media conspiracy of silence. BBC News has been covering developments since the beginning of the year, including similar claims about 2014 by-elections, and Grant Shapps MP (Conservative chairman during the election) was hauled onto the BBC Daily Politics sofa to respond to the allegations. And the BBC’s Today programme put the allegations to Communities & Local Government Secretary Greg Clark this morning. Channel 4 News has been investigating the story, and breaking developments, from the start. The Mirror has done a big investigation into each of the MPs’ campaigns that have been accused. And all of the main papers have published news reports on the story.

The reason it may seem like silence, or lack of due prominence, is because this is an ongoing investigation. So far there have been no arrests, and the allegations remain just that: allegations. Care is required by media organisations not to falsely accuse anyone of criminal activity. And, pushed by journalists, the Conservatives have given their side of the story, so we’re not going to get a great deal more from them. Now it’s up to police forces to decide to take action.

So far, the only things to report on have been what would and would not count as a breach of electoral law (rather a dry subject), and whether or not the Electoral Commission would achieve an extension on the time allowed by law for investigating (also somewhat technical). And, however dull, these things have been reported. They may not have been shared a huge amount online, or bounced to the top of “most-read” boxes – but this is because readers aren’t usually that interested in the ins and outs of the Representation of the People Act, no matter how much those who want this government toppled wish they were.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.