Former Labour spin doctor Damian McBride defends memoirs: I didn't break any laws
Senior ex-adviser says he would happily talk to the police and give up pension if civil service felt he should
Tuesday 24 September 2013
Labour's former spin doctor Damian McBride has said he did not believe that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls were aware of the details of his briefing activities when he was working for Gordon Brown.
In his first TV interview since the serialisation of his memoirs, Mr McBride said he was “ashamed” of the way he treated Labour politicians he saw as rivals to Mr Brown.
But he insisted he did not break the law, and said he would be happy to speak to police if they decide to look into complaints from a Conservative MP. He also said he was ready to give up his pension if the civil service felt he should.
MP Alun Cairns has told Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan Howe that he is “deeply concerned that serious offences may have been committed” by the senior ex-Labour adviser.
Revelations made by Mr McBride in the Daily Mail serialisation of his account of his time in Whitehall suggest he accessed the then chancellor's emails without authorisation, he told the commissioner in a letter. That, Mr Cairns said,could be a breach of the Computer Misuse Act 1990, and he also called for a probe into whether Mr McBride leaked confidential documents in breach of the Official Secrets Act.
Fellow MP Henry Smith has written to a Whitehall watchdog over what he claimed was evidence in the book of “serious and repeated breaches” of the civil service and special adviser codes of conduct.
The claims came as Mr McBride's insider account of his part in the toxic in-fighting between the camps of Mr Brown and Tony Blair continued to make waves at the Labour Party conference in Brighton.
Extracts of the book Power Trip - published today to coincide with Ed Miliband's keynote speech - detail Mr McBride's operations to ruin the careers of Mr Brown's rivals and boost his boss.
But speaking to BBC2's Newsnight, Mr McBride said he could have made more money by delaying publication until the weeks before the general election scheduled for May 2015.
And he did not point the finger of blame at Labour's current leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls - both members of Mr Brown's inner circle at the time.
Asked if he believed the pair knew what he was up to, Mr McBride said: “No, even less than Gordon would have done, because I didn't work with them on a day-to-day basis in the way I did with Gordon.”
Mr McBride said Mr Brown did not inquire into his methods. “I don't think he knew what I was doing a lot of the time. I operated a lot of the time in the shadows...,” he said.
“Gordon knew he got from me media influence that was unparalleled and access to different bits of the media that other politicians couldn't reach.
“He never asked me quite how do you pull this off, because he just thought it was my personal relationship with journalists.”
Mr McBride confirmed that he would earn more than £100,000 from the book deal and would do “very well” out of it even after his publisher and the taxman took their slices.
But he added: “I was offered a much more lucrative contract to publish in April 2015. I was told whatever was offered, I could double it to publish in April 2015 to do maximum damage to the Labour Party.
“I chose not to do that because I wanted to publish a book at some stage and I thought better to do it now as long as possible before the general election.”
Mr McBride told Newsnight: “I feel ashamed and sorry to those individuals whose careers I affected and even more so to the innocent bystanders that got in the way - special advisers who lost their jobs as a result of them being pushed out of government, people that were mentioned in the context of these sleazy stories.”
Asked if he was concerned about possible prosecution, Mr McBride said: “I am sure that I wasn't committing any criminal offences. I wouldn't leak confidential documents and I would take pains to not do so.
“I would be happy to talk to the police if they wanted an explanation.
“I was denied all sorts of things when I was forced to resign. If they want to take my pension away as well, then that's up to them. If that's what the civil service want to do, if they think it's appropriate, that's up to them.
Mr Cairns told Sir Bernard he believed there were “grounds to investigate whether Mr McBride breached the Official Secrets Act 1989 by leaking confidential documents”.
He added: “I am deeply concerned that serious offences may have been committed in these instances.”
The Tory MP pointed to one passage printed in a Daily Mail serialisation where Mr McBride said he logged on to Mr Brown's official email when he was chancellor to hunt for Cabinet papers and minutes as part of efforts to pre-brief policy announcements to the media to his advantage.
“Mr McBride's account suggests that he accessed the then chancellor's email account without authorisation, which the Computer Misuse Act 1990 states is an offence,” he wrote to Sir Bernard.
He said that as someone subject to the strict “developed vetting” Whitehall security process in his role, Mr McBride would have had access to “highly confidential - even secret - government documents.
Mr Smith's complaint, to the First Civil Service Commissioner Sir David Normington, involved Mr McBride's handling of sensitive Treasury documents relating to the 1992 “Black Wednesday” disaster when he was still working as a supposedly neutral civil servant in the Treasury in 2005.
Mr McBride reveals in his book that while aware that Mr Brown was “not supposed to have any knowledge about their contents, or any influence over the handling of their publication”, he made sure they came out in a way that was helpful to the Labour election cause.
“Mr McBride goes on to reveal that he had deliberately pointed out the sections of the papers which would be most damaging to the Conservatives to journalists,” Mr Smith wrote.
“As Mr McBride confirms, he was a civil servant at this time working in the Treasury. As such his actions were governed by the Civil Service Code of Conduct.
“Mr McBride's account of his actions clearly shows that his behaviour directly contradicted the Civil Service values of integrity, honesty and impartiality.”
He claimed there were further breaches of conduct rules after Mr McBride became a special adviser to Mr Brown after the 2005 election concerning leaking stories to the media.
“It is clear...that Mr McBride broke the code on numerous occasions, briefing out confidential government documents and briefing against other members of the government.
“Given the clear evidence repeated and serious breaches of the Civil Service Code and the Special Adviser Code of Conduct, I believe that it is inappropriate for the taxpayer to continue to fund Mr McBride's pension,” he said.
“I therefore ask that you formally consider whether Mr McBride's civil service pension should be withdrawn.”
As the revelations continued to reopen old wounds at the conference, shadow chancellor Mr Balls branded his former colleague “despicable” and denied that he had ever himself given negative briefings against colleagues while in government.
Mr Balls, who was a key member of Gordon Brown's inner circle with Mr McBride during the last Labour administration, insisted that the kind of “negative, nasty briefing” detailed in Mr McBride's book no longer took place within the party.
But Mr McBride insisted he did not believe anything in his book would affect the outcome of the 2015 election.
And he told Newsnight: “The great thing about this week, much as Labour people will say this was disastrous, is that every single member of the shadow cabinet has now made a commitment, a vow, that they will never do anonymous briefing. We have never had that before.
“Hopefully, they will be held to that.”
Charlie Whelan, who was Mr Brown's spin doctor throughout most of the 1990s, said he and Mr Brown would be “more shocked than anybody” to learn about Mr McBride's activities.
“I had no idea what Damian was up to and neither did Gordon Brown,” he told the BBC's Daily Politics.
Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman told ITV's Daybreak Mr McBride's behaviour was 'disgraceful'.
Asked about claims that shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander had repeatedly briefed to the media that Mr Brown was refused a one to one meeting with US President Barack Obama, she replied: "What you are talking about there is an accusation by Damian McBride against somebody else and the point about that is that Damian McBride has admitted he's a liar so why should I believe that as much as
any of the things he said about me?
"It was bad, I'm not minimising it, but it was the past," she added.
Mr McBride said Mr Miliband and Mr Balls "weren't really involved' in his activities but suggested people had not been asking enough questions.
He told ITV's Daybreak: "Both they and Gordon Brown weren't really involved in my activities.
"If you like I'd compare it to when we had some of the rogue bankers, rogue traders in the 1980s in banks where, in some ways people weren't asking enough questions about how they were making their profits or that kind of thing and I think I would compare myself to that.
"It was only when you discovered the scale of the activities that people were a bit horrified about what they found and obviously that's what I've been prepared to admit in this book."
Ms Harman said: "At the time when people heard these rumours, it was unsettling and the sense that somehow there should be spin and smearing at the top of the Labour Party... noLabour member wants to hear that that's how politics that they're involved in is done.
"But actually, most people are concerned about the reality of the problems of people's lives and, yes, it is horrible to hear about that but that is definitely very much in the past."
She added: "Most of them have never heard of Damian McBride and actually they know the way that Ed Miliband runs his team in the Labour Party. He would never be involved in anything like that."
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