Andy McSmith: I warned them that McBride was bad news

Andy McSmith recalls his dealings with the man who has plunged Labour into crisis

Warning signs that the political career of Damian McBride could end in disaster were already up and lit before he and his employer took up residence in 10 Downing Street.

His attack-dog style, blunt language, and fondness for drinking and talking late into the night were signs of a man who lacked the caution of a career civil servant.

McBride is a man of parts. When I dealt with him professionally, I was always impressed by how quickly and succinctly he replied to queries. And yet, though I do not normally consider it my business to intervene in the political process, I did attempt two years ago to convey a message to Gordon Brown, through one of his trustees, that it would be unwise to move McBride from the Treasury to the highly exposed position of official spokesman for the Prime Minister.

Even then, he had too much of a reputation for enjoying drinking late into the night with journalists. People in these exposed positions can drink with journalists if they must, but should never, ever, enjoy it. Gathering and passing on political intelligence is a duty that people around the Prime Minister have to perform. It is not a game to be played for fun.

McBride, who is only 34, was too obviously hooked on the game. He was still in his 20s when Brown raised him to the position of Director of Communications for the Treasury in 2003. In that post, he was meant to be bound by the rules that ban civil servants from engaging in party politics, but McBride took a pretty liberal view of what he was permitted to say and do in the service of Gordon Brown.

In 2005, when his partisan behaviour was causing older and wiser civil servants to question his suitability, his job description was altered to "special adviser", meaning that he continued to draw a civil service salary, but was free from the rules about political impartiality.

Anthony Browne, now head of policy in Boris Johnson's private office of London's Mayor, was one of the first to experience how McBride made use of this freedom. Browne was working as a journalist at The Times, but was shortly to head off to run a Conservative think-tank, when he submitted a question to the Treasury about how pension funds had been affected by changes in the tax system.

McBride's reply, by text message, was: "I just wish for once you'd try to get past your cynical, Tory, half-wit Harold Lloyd schtick to try and be a genuine journalist. It's presumably cos of your inability to do so that you're off to earn a crust at some Tory think-tank instead. Pathetic."

Guido Fawkes, the blogger who revealed the emails that ended McBride's career, told another damaging story about him three years ago, though this was never substantiated. McBride was allegedly overheard in a London pub telling David Cracknell, the political editor of The Sunday Times, that there were plans afoot to remove John Prescott as deputy prime minister and to appoint David Miliband in his place. Whether or not McBride planted that tale, it duly turned up in The Sunday Times.

Though stories like these do no great credit to the reputation of politics, they contain a clue as to why Gordon Brown retained this adviser who has so spectacularly dropped him in it. McBride was devoted to the job. He was on call 24 hours day – a quality much appreciated by Brown, who is himself never off duty. He was utterly loyal to Brown, and, unlike most people who work for the Labour Party, he had good relations with Tory newspapers, such as The Sunday Times, the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph. Even Anthony Browne, despite that bruising text message, thought he was a high-quality professional operator. "He is what he is – a colourful character, and life would be poorer without colourful characters," he said yesterday.

The trouble is that high-level politics these days practically excludes anyone who is not an obsessive. Anybody who spent just part of their life in the company of people outside politics would see at once what an appalling thing it is to be sitting in an office in Downing Street, using a government email account to purvey tittle-tattle about the emotional state of a woman whose only offence is to be married to a rival politician.

But for some of the obsessives caught up in the glitzy excitement of life at the centre, it is all about playing the game for its own sake, and any sense of proportion, any sense of how your behaviour looks to those on the outside, is lost.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones