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Stained by association

Gordon Brown was right to go after the Tories on policy, but his credibility as a moral leader has b

From when David Cameron became Conservative leader in December 2005, until Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in June 2007, there was tension between Brown and Tony Blair over how exactly to handle him. Blair’s camp wanted to appease the Tory leader. A frustrated Brown wanted to expose Cameron’s Tories as the same unreconstructed party with nothing more than a “spray job” image change. In hindsight, given Cameron’s policy positions on everything from inheritance tax to Europe, Brown’s approach was more effective than Blair’s. Now it 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., the website run by Derek Draper, had itself published articles presenting the positive policy case for a fourth Labour term, as well as a powerful attack on Tory fiscal policy by the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls. But, however repentant he and McBride are now, Draper was also an enthusiastic participant in the email exchanges, which one of Labour’s most policy-driven thinkers, Charles Clarke, was the first to condemn – before McBride’s resignation – as bringing “shame” on Labour. Not for the first time in his career, Draper is now facing calls for his links with Labour to be severed, the most recent by an infuriated John Prescott.

Gordon Brown’s weekend letter to the Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, imposing strict new guidelines on political advisers, can be read in part as a belated recognition of his own responsibility in the affair. 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.

The emails were revealed by Paul Staines, who writes the right-wing Guido Fawkes blog. Draper is convinced that several months ago his personal Yahoo account was hacked into. Certainly, he has told friends, private information has since emerged in the public domain that could only have come from his emails. This may or may not be true.

Questioned by the New Statesman about Draper’s suggestion that his email account had been hacked into, Staines initially said a good journalist never reveals his sources, and then, pressed further, denied, after a pause, that any such hacking had taken place. He then wrote up a wildly inaccurate account of our conversation in his blog – one that omitted any mention of what the actual inquiry was about. Whatever the provenance of his scoop, it was certainly not through the Freedom of Information request for the McBride-Draper emails he submitted this past week, though that is not to say he was necessarily involved in anything illegal.

But Labour’s leadership knows that the source of the story – however murky – is not the point. Before it broke, ministers had been privately expressing urgent concern at the lack of any coherent message, let alone “attack unit”, focused on Tory policy in the run-up to the general election next year. Today, some must be wondering: if that’s the best its apparatchiks can dream up, does it deserve to win?

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Who polices our police?