Exclusive: Tory press officer in email smears

Desperate attempts to defend Kaminski backfire

Email accounts at Conservative Central Office are being used to smear journalists who write stories that damage the party, I have learned.

First, the context:

On 29 July, I reported on concerns in the European Jewish community over the new leader of the conservative group in the European Parliament, Michal Kaminski.

For a full account of the quotes -- which are being denied by Kaminski and Tory supporters -- see my previous post here.

Various outlets picked up the story and George Pitcher, the Telegraph's respected religion editor, expressed outrage at the revelations.

However, Tory sympathisers quickly went on the attack against me and in defence of Kaminski, including Daniel Hannan, who described me as a "Labour spin doctor", linking to inaccurate claims on a Tory gossip site which attacked me for reporting a split between Boris Johnson and David Cameron that is now widely accepted.

Now, I have learned that on 3 August Will Littlejohn, the Conservative Party press officer responsible for "foreign affairs, shadow leader of the House, community cohesion", wrote an email from an official Conservative account to Pitcher. (Like Hannan, Littlejohn also linked to the Tory gossip site.)

In the email, seen by the New Statesman, he made a number of points in defence of Kaminski. He then wrote:

I would also argue with you calling a journalist "excellent" who was implicated in the Damian McBride story.

This is not true.

My contribution to the McBride story can be read in full here. I wrote:

[Brown's anti-Tory strategy] has been undermined -- perhaps fatally -- with the publication of entirely partisan emails aimed at creating ugly, personal smear stories about the Tories, sent from a Downing Street account by Damian McBride, a senior Brown aide who was also a civil servant . . .
. . . Brown, whose darker side has been exposed by this scandal, chose to hang on to an adviser who was meant to have disappeared after Labour's party conference last autumn. It was there that the behaviour of McBride, prone to late-night gossip with journalists, sometimes to the detriment of other Labour politicians, provoked the senior figures Ed Miliband, Douglas Alexander and Peter Mandelson into telling Brown he must remove McBride.
The man known to ministers as McPoison had been by Brown's side since he impressed the then chancellor with briefings on the fuel protests in his role as a Treasury civil servant. And in the small print of the spectacular reshuffle that brought Mandelson's comeback, it was quietly announced that McBride was to withdraw to the supposed backwater of "planning and strategy". This now appears to have included dreaming up partisan gossip for a second, embryonic Draper blogsite, Red Rag, while being paid by the taxpayer.
But McBride continued as a valued member of Team Brown, as apparently did Charlie Whelan, political director of the Unite trade union, who also briefed journalists at the party conference, and was copied in on some of the emails. McBride continued to act as an "enforcer" for Brown, and Balls, by briefing favoured journalists and setting up interviews. At the Glenrothes by-election in November, only weeks after he was removed, reporters were surprised to find McBride controlling access to Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister's wife. And on Brown's recent flight to the US to see President Obama, McBride could be seen sleeping in the seat next to that of Brown's current press officer, Michael Dugher.
Brown insists that he knew nothing of the tactic being hatched by McBride and Draper.
But he cannot escape responsibility for the failure to restore the clear dividing line, blurred by Blair, between civil servants and partisan political advisers.

You would have thought that the Conservative Party might be a little more careful about sending smears from official email accounts, having made so much of the McBride affair that its press officers wrongly claim "implicated" me. Some kind of irony? I look forward to an apology.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.