New Times,
New Thinking.

9 October 2009

Exclusive: Tory press officer in email smears

Desperate attempts to defend Kaminski backfire

By James Macintyre

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.

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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.

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