Andy McSmith's Diary: Spot the hidden clues in Damian McBride's confessions

Our Man in Westminster

Like a sinner at confession, Damian McBride has owned up to trashing the reputations of Charles Clarke, John Reid, and others who crossed his master, Gordon Brown. But as the saying goes, it takes two to tango: for McBride’s malicious briefings to work, there had to be political journalists who willingly leant him their ears.

He tactfully does not name those he used as outlets, but a sift through the records turns up a number of stories with the McBride touch.

McBride admits that in 2005 he “orchestrated what looked like a briefing war” between Clarke and a prominent civil servant, Louise Casey. An example of what appears to be his handiwork was dated 3 July: “Tony Blair has issued a furious dressing-down to Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, for going soft in the fight against crime ... [and] has ordered Louise Casey, the director of the Government’s antisocial behaviour unit, to report directly to him.”

More details emerge on 31 July: “At a meeting  ... the Prime Minister repeatedly sided with Ms Casey against Mr Clarke, at one point warning the Home Secretary that he needed to develop a sense of conviction...”

By 28 May 2006, Clarke was gone, replaced by John Reid, and both men were hit in one opening paragraph of another report: “John Reid, the Home Secretary, has gone on holiday to France while his Whitehall department battles with a string of crises… The Home Secretary, who took over from Charles Clarke [right] three weeks ago, boasted that he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to sort out his troubled department, which he described as ‘not fit for purpose’…”

And so on. What all these reports and many more have in common is the byline “by Patrick Hennessy” – the same Patrick Hennessy who has just joined Ed Miliband’s office to “sharpen Labour’s attack stories”. Hopefully that means attacking politicians outside the party.

Brown’s navy larks

“If Labour is in power after the 2015 election, with Ed Miliband installed as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor, I’m sure they’ll invite Gordon to the first Downing Street Christmas party, and get him to tell his ‘Japanese admiral’ joke,” writes McBride. But tantalisingly, nowhere in a long extract from his book does he let on what the joke was.

I am in a position to enlighten, but first I must stress that I am not saying it is funny, merely that this is a joke Brown told on many occasions. The story goes that the late Jimmy Wray, Labour MP for Glasgow Govan until 2005, came from a family so poor that they used to send him to school in second-hand clothes. One day, he met someone who said that they had had the same experience, to which Wray retorted: “Aye, but you didn’t have to go as a Japanese admiral.” Boom, boom.

An old hand from Gordon Brown’s office said: “I think we all laughed because it was so not funny.”

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