McBride scandal could have been avoided

Gordon Brown could have avoided one of the worst spin scandals in Downing Street history.

His second honeymoon as Prime Minister, after hosting a successful G20 summit in London in April 2009, was cut short when it was revealed that Damian McBride, his spin doctor and close aide, had sent an email containing what most newspapers referred to as "vile and false allegations" against leading Conservatives and their spouses.

McBride resigned. Brown went into what an observer described as "one of his very quiet, smouldering furies". Another said McBride's departure was "a death in the family". McBride said when he told Brown what he'd done "he was so angry and let down he could barely speak, even to me".

The period of notoriety that followed McBride's resignation saw him painted as the worst kind of thuggish political operator briefing against anybody who stood in Brown's way. Even his strongest defenders admit there is a bit of him that does reflect his nickname "McPoison", but insist that was always far from the whole picture.

A Cambridge-educated economist, McBride turned his analytical skills on the media on Brown's behalf and understood better than most how to influence journalists.

According to three separate accounts given privately, both Ed Balls [the Schools Secretary] and McBride were guilty of briefing against Chancellor Alistair Darling last spring, when Brown considered moving him. "There has always been this separate operation, which is the Ed-Balls-for-Chancellor operation," said a source. One person who witnessed it from within No 10 said: "Ed Balls was working to his own agenda, which was not always the same as Gordon's, and he and Damian were thick as thieves."

In 2004, McBride was Brown's Treasury communications director, supposedly apolitical. The Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, Gus O'Donnell, became concerned he was engaged in systematic political briefing and insisted his status be changed to special adviser. By the time Brown became PM, O'Donnell was Cabinet Secretary. Once again he spoke to Brown and advised him not to bring McBride [to No 10]. Had his advice been heeded McBride may never have been known beyond Westminster.