Psst... the rumours that tainted Brown's rivals

McBride's emails are consistent with a tradition of negative briefing, says Andy McSmith

Those notorious emails from Damian McBride have shed light on creatures who prefer to stay in the political undergrowth, where they can be heard via unattributable briefings, without being observed.

It has long been known that Gordon Brown likes to retain the services of anonymous spin-doctors. That, in itself, does not shock anyone who knows the Westminster scene. Neither the Prime Minister nor any other prominent politician can put aside the time to tend to the daily demands of news outlets, so they hire others to speak in their name.

What was shocking about the McBride emails was that he was dabbling in very personal and inaccurate information that had nothing to do with the normal business of politics. This is different from the stories about negative briefings that have surfaced in the past. When one of Tony Blair's staff denigrated the weapons scientist Dr David Kelly as a "Walter Mitty character", or another – allegedly Alastair Campbell – said Gordon Brown had psychological flaws, these comments may have been harsh or unfair, but they were at least relevant to public life at the time. One of McBride's targets was not even a politician, but the wife of a politician with no public role.

When a rash of anonymously sourced stories about Harriet Harman appeared earlier this year, one of her former rivals in the 2007 deputy leadership contest, Jon Cruddas, said: "A rogue element has developed since the departure of Tony Blair. Their personal attacks, anonymous briefings and confused diagnoses are symptomatic of an inability – or simple refusal – to grasp the end of an era."

McBride's sudden exposure prompts questions about what else he has been up to since he was given the role of Gordon Brown's special adviser in 2005. We cannot possibly know. McBride did not whisper in the ears of every political journalist he knew, but only to those who could be trusted not to give him away. Others received nothing except the sort of information which a Prime Minister's aide could properly divulge.

However, a trawl through old newspaper cuttings produces a wealth of examples of what people around Gordon Brown have said in the past about political opponents, including – or even especially – rivals within the leadership of the Labour Party. All the incidents described occurred in that period when Damian McBride was Gordon Brown's principal spin-doctor.

Harriet Harman "Who the hell does that woman think she is?"

Gordon Brown did not choose to have Harriet Harman as a deputy. Elected by party members, she cannot be sacked but can be briefed against. People in Mr Brown's entourage, such as Damian McBride, have good relations with The Mail On Sunday. The paper reported that Mr Brown had discussed with his advisers whether to sack her from her other role as Leader of the Commons, for disloyalty. "Who the hell does that woman think she is?" Mr Brown allegedly exclaimed.

Jack Straw and George Howarth (Labour MP) "They're using women because it's harder for Gordon to attack them, but it's cowardly and a complete shambles"

Last year, George Howarth was collecting the names of fellow Labour MPs who wanted a change of Prime Minister. Several women MPs stuck their heads over the parapet. That much is true, and it is also correct that Mr Howarth is an old friend of the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw. That does not prove Straw was plotting against Brown, but a "senior Brown aide" told the Mail On Sunday that he was, adding: "They are using women because it is harder for Gordon to attack them, but it is cowardly and a complete shambles."

Alistair Darling "He's made a complete arse of it"

Alistair Darling caused a shock last August when he predicted that the recession would be profound and long lasting. It might seem now that he veered towards the optimistic, but at the time, Mr Brown's people regarded his comment as a crass blunder.

"He has made a complete arse of it," one senior Labour figure told Scotland On Sunday. "It doesn't help things when the Chancellor starts saying the economy is down the tubes, especially when the Prime Minister just so happens to have been looking after it for the last 10 years."

James Purnell "Is James Purnell gay?"

The question was posed on a website run by someone living in or near the Work and Pensions Secretary's constituency of Stalybridge and Hyde. No one knows where the smear originated but the journalist Rachel Sylvester has implied that McBride might be behind it. Mr Purnell, 39, whose partner is the film-maker Lucy Walker, worked for Tony Blair for years and is seen by Blairites as a potential successor to Gordon Brown.

Ivan Lewis "His behaviour went well beyond acceptable office boundaries"

Ivan Lewis, a junior health minister, urged Mr Brown not to be "timid" and to impose a supertax on high earners. Then it suddenly emerged that a year earlier he had bombarded a young female civil servant with text messages. The Daily Mail quoted a "Whitehall source" as saying that "his behaviour went well beyond acceptable office boundaries" – but also speculated that Lewis had been the victim of a "dirty tricks" campaign.

Douglas Alexander "Douglas has been deeply unhappy for some time and wants out"

Douglas Alexander has been close to Mr Brown for years, and was chosen by him to organise the next general election campaign. But their relations became frosty in 2007 after Mr Brown apparently could not decide whether to call a snap election. Mr Alexander was fingered as a young Turk "pumped with political testosterone". The Mail on Sunday speculated Mr Brown might remove him from his election role, after a "Labour source" said: "Douglas has been deeply unhappy for some time and wants out."

David Miliband "He is too grand. He hasn't got that common touch you need as a Labour MP, especially a Labour MP who wants to lead the party"

When the Prime Minister was in trouble last year, sources close to the Foreign Secretary let it be known that he was ready to take over. But Mr Miliband's spin doctors could not match Mr Brown's. Jason Cowley, the editor of The New Statesman wrote that "someone who works at No.10" had told him: "The trouble with David Miliband is that he is too grand. He hasn't got that common touch you need as a Labour MP, especially a Labour MP who wants to lead the party." The Daily Telegraph was told: "David Miliband has shown himself to be not only disloyal but also self-serving."

Stephen Carter "It was a very David Brent sort of gaffe"

Stephen Carter, an experienced PR man, was the political innocent enlisted last year to be Gordon Brown's strategy chief. It did not work out. Soon, stories were coming out of things Mr Carter had said at private meetings, such as "Who's JP?" (Answer: John Prescott). He also let slip to staff that one of their colleagues was being replaced, when they had no idea. "It was a very David Brent sort of gaffe," an insider told The Sunday Telegraph, adding: "Gordon can hardly bear to look at him."

Boris Johnson "McBride wanted to poison the party, even if it meant embarrassing Britain in a foreign capital"

London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, has complained in his Daily Telegraph column how a visit to China, that should have celebrated London's success in securing the 2012 Olympic, was almost ruined. A presentation by the London administration included a glimpse of a painting of Myra Hindley, which might have gone unnoticed if someone had not devoted a lot of energy to pointing it out. "And who was the fly in the ointment? Who was the slug on the milk bottle? Who was the proverbial t-- in the punchbowl of Olympic joy? It was Damian McBride," Mr Johnson claimed. "He wanted to poison the party, even if it meant embarrassing Britain in a foreign capital."

Guido Fawkes "I was tarred as a racist"

Paul Staines, the right-wing blogger who obtained Damian McBride's now notorious emails, had a score to settle. "He took the trouble to read and round up some off-colour and politically incorrect comments left on my blog one Friday afternoon and forward them to my rival Derek Draper," he claimed in yesterday's Times. "I was tarred as a racist over things not written by me, and that I had not even read." This time Mr McBride had met his match. As Mr Staines put it: "I was prepared to do violence on Damian McBride."

Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn "This two-man band of self-proclaimed 'ultras' "

The Former Health Secretary Alan Milburn and former Environment Secretary Stephen Byers were known as Blairite "ultras" because of their intense loyalty to Tony Blair. They clashed with Mr Brown over policy, only to discover, in each case, that stories of alleged womanising had been put into circulation, though they never found out who by. An executive of Sky News was sent a text message in 2006 when Mr Byers was due to appear to comment on the last Pre-Budget Report that Mr Brown delivered before he became Prime Minister

The text said: "I hear that you've got S Byers on tmrw for your 'before and after' coverage of the PBR. Out of interest, who do you have on for Labour? I think this is the 2nd or 3rd of these post-GB events when someone like Byers or Milburn has been on your programme. If you insist on having this two-man band of self-proclaimed 'ultras' on your panels, can you at least put on another MP alongside them who actually represents anything close to the mainstream of the Labour party?"

Unlike other briefings, this message was not anonymous. It was from Damian McBride.