Damian McBride: 'Gordon Brown knew what I was doing when I leaked the Budget. He encouraged it’
Seeking absolution? Former spin doctor tells Andrew Grice the real story behind his explosive book
Andrew Grice has been Political Editor of The Independent since 1998. He was previously Political Editor of The Sunday Times, where he worked for 10 years, and he has been a Westminster-based journalist since 1982. His column, Inside Politics, appears in The Independent each Saturday.
Saturday 28 September 2013
Damian McBride, the spin doctor to Gordon Brown who undermined his fellow Cabinet ministers, has admitted that the former Chancellor and Prime Minister knew about many of his "activities".
In an interview with The Independent, Mr McBride claimed Tony Blair sometimes confronted Mr Brown about damaging leaks after being told by the security services that Mr McBride was responsible for them. He said Mr Brown was "convinced" the services were monitoring whom Mr McBride was speaking to on the telephone. Mr McBride, who suspected his phone was tapped, said: "I just thought 'I am clearly under some sort of scrutiny' . There were people gunning for me."
In his book, "Power Trip," Mr McBride suggested Mr Brown did not know what he was doing because his unspoken word to his boss was "don't question my methods." But in his interview, the former spin doctor said: "That is not what I am saying."
He said Mr Brown would approve his leaks before Budgets, suspected he was the source of stories aimed at destabilising other ministers but did not know he smeared them. Today, Mr Brown's office declined to comment.
'It wasn’t my plan, but the one impact is that it will be very difficult to do much anonymous briefing now'
Damian McBride admits he has had a “rollercoaster” week. The now infamous spin doctor was the unwanted ghost at Labour’s conference, an untimely reminder of the feuds, plots and smears of the Blair-Brown era. Gordon Brown’s former right-hand man did not predict the “frenzy” that would accompany his presence in Brighton to promote his explosive book.
“I made a mistake in thinking I have been through a week like this before,” he says, referring to his resignation from Downing Street in 2008 after leaked emails revealed plans to set up a website smearing Conservative politicians. “The difference is that then I was hiding away from everybody and managing to avoid the cameras.”
With hindsight, he wishes he had not gone to Brighton as it gave the impression, wrongly, that he was “trying to rub everyone’s nose in it”. He regrets not having had a “grown-up conversation” with Ed Miliband’s team about the serialisation of his book in the Daily Mail, whose timing caused maximum damage to Labour. But McBride is adamant that the party’s over-reaction to the book compounded the headache – and he cannot resist prescribing some medicine.
“People were almost falling over themselves to be more extreme about it than each other,” he said. “They should have said: ‘This is ancient history from a known story-teller; we are not going to respond.’”
In Brighton, McBride replied to allegations he was a “traitor” by arguing that he was helping the party to “exorcise its demons” from the New Labour era. But surely in his confessional book he is also exorcising his? “Yeah – it is certainly true,” he replies in a remarkably candid interview with The Independent, saying he has been unable to be proud of the good things he did in his job because he had never admitted “the bad stuff”.
Is McBride, a Catholic who goes to church “occasionally”, seeking absolution? It seems so. “It is very difficult to ever move on with your life unless you are honest about what you have done in the past. Do I feel absolved or penitent? Anyone who looks at themselves in the present and says: ‘This is the person I now am’ is fooling themself. You have to let other people be the judge of that. The one thing you can do is look back at the person you were and say: ‘What would I think of that person now?’ In some ways that is what I have tried to do here.”
McBride is now head of communications at Cafod, the Catholic aid agency, which is considering “appropriate action” over his revelations about his behaviour. “They, like me, were shocked by the scale of the coverage,” he admits. “They were naturally a bit worried.” He hopes to carry on in his job, which he loves, and also hopes that his employers will be happier when they read the whole book rather than the “10 per cent” published in the extracts.
In his defence, McBride hopes Power Trip will do some good to politics. “It wasn’t my intention. I would be lying to say it was a Machiavellian plan, but with any luck the one impact it has had is that it will be very difficult for anyone to do a huge amount of anonymous briefing before the next election.”
The Mail extracts raised eyebrows because of the suggestion that Brown did not know that his loyal spinner destabilised and undermined cabinet colleagues. McBride wrote: “The unspoken word was from me to him, and said: ‘Don’t question my methods.’”
Surely a politician so driven, some would say obsessive, as Gordon Brown must have known what his special adviser was up to? “Yeah,” McBride admits, insisting he has been misunderstood. “The trouble is when people look at the book and all the activities described in it, there is a tendency to say: ‘What do you mean when you say Gordon did not know any of this?’ That is not what I am saying.”
In the interview, McBride lists four categories of spin, leaks and briefings, some of which Brown knew about, some which he did not.
“At one level you have Gordon almost conniving to leak EU budget proposals ... He knew exactly what I was doing [when he was] effectively leaking stories from the budget in advance. That was done in a way that everyone else has done over the years, with his knowledge, acceptance and encouragement. I would present him with front-page stories which were the result of that kind of activity and he would be quite pleased with it.”
Category two was McBride “pushing at the edge a bit”– doling out stories to newspapers about what other Whitehall departments were doing after logging on to Brown’s computer – with his knowledge – “on an almost daily basis”, and spending hours trawling through confidential cabinet papers. Most stories were “positive”, McBride insists, even though the departments concerned were puzzled about where unauthorised briefings had come from. He concedes to ulterior motives: keeping the newspapers onside and keeping a damaging story (often about Brown) off the front pages.
“Gordon would be told: ‘It’s your bloody McBride who has done this.’ I would either say to him: ‘For goodness sake Gordon, I get accused of everything, it’s time you told people to bugger off.’ Or, when I was guilty, I would usually just walk out of the room straight away,” he says. “Probably he was not going to accuse me of being a liar to my face but he would have been suspicious. He wouldn’t always understand why I had done it. I wanted to say: ‘You don’t know what The Sunday Times splash would have been if I hadn’t done this,’ but I just flounced out.”
Sometimes, McBride admits, he was “bang to rights” – and Tony Blair knew it as well. “[Blair] would say: ‘I know McBride did this.’ He [Brown] would normally assume that was because Blair had been told by the security services.” Brown was “convinced” the spooks were monitoring the people McBride was speaking to. McBride sometimes suspected they even tapped his phones, which occasionally went dead. As a result he started “doing most of my business in person”, meeting journalists in pubs instead of talking on the mobile normally glued to his ear. When Brown started to receive briefings from the security services – and McBride was “between girlfriends and not behaving like a saint”, Brown told him: “Watch this stuff you are doing ... sort out your personal life.”
McBride recalls: “It made me a bit paranoid. I thought: ‘I am clearly under some sort of scrutiny.’ There were people gunning for me.”
Revealingly, he now admits that keeping all the newspapers happy “became self-serving, not Gordon-serving” – he hoped his contacts, especially on the tabloids, would protect him from being “turned over”.
His heavy drinking with journalists was legendary. It has taken its toll; he looks older than his 39 years. He admits he was an alcoholic. “I was out of control because my day was not complete without it,” he says. He still drinks, but much less and “can go without it for a week”.
A third category of McBride’s “activities” were leaks of which the provenance remained a mystery. Brown probably knew it was him sometimes, he concedes. For example, he orchestrated a briefing war between Charles Clarke, the then Home Secretary and a potential Brown rival to succeed Blair, and Louise Casey, the Prime Minister’s anti-social behaviour tsar.
The Mail described it as “an assassination” because Clarke was sacked in 2006. Yet the main reason for his dismissal was the disclosure that more than 1,000 foreign prisoners had been released from jail without being deported. McBride says he is not claiming Clarke quit over the Casey row, but insists it undermined his relationship with Blair and contributed to his dismissal.
“It was a massive distraction for Charles Clarke,” he boasts, revealing another dirty trick of his trade – leaks to the Sunday papers. “Someone is going to have their Sunday ruined, but not us... Better if that person spent a lot of their time trying to undermine Gordon. If they were being critical of Gordon, that put them in the frame,” he explains.
Finally, there were “way-over-the-edge activities” against other ministers when Brown did not know what his trusted aide had done – such as leaking to the News of the World a story that Ivan Lewis, a Health minister who has been critical of Brown, had allegedly pestered a civil servant, a claim Lewis denied. “I had been in the job for too long and was not even bothering to cover my tracks any more,” McBride says.
Whatever Brown knew, is McBride worried that he will tarnish the former PM’s reputation? “I hope what it will do is present a much rounder picture of him than has ever been presented before. I think it is the truest picture of what it was like to work for Gordon,” he says. He has not had direct contact with the man he describes as having “greatness and genius” since Brown prepared to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry in June last year. But he did send a message to Brown’s office urging him to “read the book as a whole, and not just judge it on the extracts”, for which the Mail paid more than £100,000.
McBride was closer to Ed Miliband than Ed Balls when all three were in Brown’s inner circle. He fell out with Miliband when he was accused (wrongly, he insists) of telling the papers that Miliband was to blame for the aborted general election in 2007.
What would he say to Miliband if he asked his advice? “Hold your nerve. Don’t rush to tell the British public too much about yourself too soon. The time to worry about his leadership ratings is when the public are watching. We tune into politics six months before an election. That is what really counts.”
Finally, was there anything he left out of the book? McBride reveals that some material was removed on legal advice in case it influenced the imminent phone-hacking trials of two former Murdoch editors, Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks. “I hope it will be in the paperback edition,” he smiles.
‘Power Trip’ by Damian McBride is out now. Biteback Publishing (£20)
Damian McBride, 39, went to Finchley Catholic High School, London, and Cambridge University. He joined the civil service in 1996, moving to the Treasury in 1999. He became its head of communications, reporting to Gordon Brown, in 2003 and his political adviser two years later. He continued the role when Mr Brown became PM in 2007. He resigned in 2009 after it emerged he was plotting a smear campaign against senior Tories. He became head of communications for Cafod, the Catholic aid agency, in 2011.
What Brown knew
"At one level you have Gordon almost conniving to leak EU budget proposals ... He knew what I was doing ... effectively leaking stories from the budget in advance. Of course he knew ... That was done in a way everyone else has done over the years, with his knowledge, acceptance and encouragement."
What Blair knew
"[Blair] would say: ‘I know McBride did this.’ He [Brown] would normally assume that was because Blair had been told by the security services."
His weekend activities
"Someone is going to have their Sunday ruined, but not us ... Better if that person spent a lot of their time trying to undermine Gordon. If they were actively on manoeuvres or being critical of Gordon, that put them in the frame."
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