The McPoison papers: Confessions of rogue Labour spin doctor Damian McBride laid bare in memoir
As Gordon Brown’s communications chief, he smeared and span with a savagery that eventually saw him drummed out of politics. Now he has written a tell-all memoir. James Cusick gets a preview
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Thursday 19 September 2013
Over the past few weeks Gordon Brown has telephoned some of his former aides and told them he’s now worried about “the book”. The assurances he’s been offered – that “everyone gets f***ed over except you, Sarah [Brown], Ed [Balls] and Damian himself of course” – haven’t been enough to calm the former prime minister down. The serialisation this weekend of Power Trip, the first insider account of life inside Brown’s Treasury and Downing Street courts, is expected to confirm his worst fear: that he made a mistake last year when he discussed with McBride, his former spin doctor, just who merited being attacked now that he was away from frontline politics.
Those who have known both men also expect the book to re-open old wounds, spark consequential revenge, and to engender retribution – according to a still-loyal Brownite – “worthy of Machiavelli and Don f***ing Corleone”.
One said: “Damian never carried out orders the way anyone expected. Remember the scene in Macbeth when the king privately orders the two henchmen to kill Banquo? One murderer says: ‘We shall, my lord, perform what you command us.’ Well, Damian didn’t need an order. He thought he knew best which enemies to take out.”
The comment rings true as you ask around. In 2007, soon after being appointed Labour leader, Brown appeared on the Andrew Marr programme to reveal that there would be no snap election later that year as everyone expected. Before the show, some had advised Brown to use a public meeting with “Free Burma” politicians to make the call-it-off formal. But that changed, and Marr was given the exclusive in a pre-record. The only trouble was that McBride had also decided to brief the Sunday papers of the decision. The secret hadn’t lasted until Marr’s morning broadcast and Brown ended up looking wounded, pathetic even.
In the immediate aftermath of the fiasco, McBride, operating on orders from Ed Balls, helped deliver the “culprits” who’d given the PM the “wrong advice”. Those then in Downing Street recall McBride discussing who to blame. “We’ll f*** over wee Dougie,” he’s alleged to have said. Douglas Alexander, along with Ed Miliband, were subsequently made to carry the can.
A year later, amid another crisis, the scenario repeated. According to more than one account, three people were in McBride’s office when one asked: “How we going to play this? I presume we’ll just blame wee Dougie again?”
Episodes like this are at the centre of Brown’s private worry: that Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin, might be regarded as “Mad Dog” McBride continuing to carry out the orders of his sovereign, and deliver, by proxy, the attack on the Blairites and anyone that Brown has failed to target since he left Downing Street three years ago.
There’s also a strange panic among former Labour advisers in Brown’s government. One of the walking-worried told The Independent: “What if Damian praises us? That won’t go down well. None of us wants to be described positively in his f***ing book.”
McBride is the Cambridge-educated Whitehall civil servant who headed the Treasury’s communications team before he was talent-spotted by Brown as a worthy successor to Charlie Whelan and Ian Austin, his former spin-doctors-in-chief. In 2005, when Austin became an MP, McBride became Brown’s special adviser, a role he took into Number 10 when Tony Blair finally left in 2007.
Brown’s failed premiership is now widely regarded as being psychologically dysfunctional at its core. Blairites, still angry at the coup that ousted Tony, point to McBride. “He’s a symptom; part of the fear that Gordon used to attack vulnerable enemies, or knife those regarded as disloyal. They thought it was all necessary macho-politics. It wasn’t. It was Sicilian thuggery.”
McBride’s transformation from a slim, healthy, witty civil servant to the overweight, aggressive, heavy-drinking henchman, routinely nicknamed McPoison (and far worse) by the end of his time at Brown’s side, is put down by some to his being forced into a role that he didn’t quite fit.
Others are less inclined to be apologetic. “McBride was f***ing good at his job. Lethal, focused, loyal. You want to sell Gordon Brown? You can’t. That’s why he was effective.”
Those claim to have read some of Power Trip claim it deliberately blurs the real chain of command, especially in Number 10. “Damian never took orders from Gordon. It was always through Ed [Balls]. And he knew Gordon would always back him.”
The backing, according to an account shown to The Independent, started early. Andrew Turnbull was head of the Civil Service in 2005 when Brown, then still in the Treasury, signalled he wanted McBride as his adviser. Turnbull claimed McBride couldn’t be trusted and said an investigation had shown him operating outside his role as a neutral civil servant, leaking details of a private matter between John Major and Norman Lamont. Turnbull wanted McBride fired.
A Brown associate at the time says Brown was livid and lost it. “Ian Austin’s replacement had been lined up. Then, suddenly, McBride was in the frame. The reason? Brown wasn’t going to have Turnbull telling him who he could and couldn’t hire.”
Brown’s loyalty was again tested in 2008 when Harriet Harman, then Labour’s deputy leader, claimed she was being briefed against by Number 10. Brown denied it. But in Manchester during Labour’s annual conference, Harman is said to have overheard (some claim she used a tape recorder) McBride on the phone, in his room, doing exactly what she suspected. She went back to Brown. Regardless of the evidence, he refused to censure his communications chief.
At another conference a year later, when it was suspected that the Scottish minister, David Cairns – the former Roman Catholic priest who died in 2011 – was going to resign after walking out of the conference during the leader’s speech, McBride took action.
A last-minute intervention had changed Cairns’ mind, and he had decided to stay. But McBride had already leaked the story to the press and thrown in a bit of spice. Cairns was gay, and the report noted he’d used Air Miles, run up on ministerial trips, to take his “same-sex partner” on holiday. Cairns, leaving liturgical language behind, called Number 10, shouting: “Where is your moral compass now, you bunch of bastards?”
Others offer similar accounts of McBride’s “hitman” operations. Ivan Lewis, the Bury MP who publicly warned in 2008 that Brown’s government was “out of touch”, found his private text messages to a female aide splashed across the papers.
Power Trip, which offers a one-sided account of Brown’s inner court, is nevertheless said to be clear on who is responsible for the former PM’s eventual downfall. And it isn’t Brown himself.
Another former aide says : “Stephen Carter [brought in from the private sector in 2008 as Brown’s chief of staff] gets hammered, even though McBride helped make his life in Number 10 pure hell. Spencer Livermore gets hammered because of the 2007 election f***-up. Alistair Darling gets hammered because Gordon couldn’t bear anyone but him running the Treasury. Douglas Alexander, Ed Miliband… everybody, every Blairite, they all get hammered.”
But what gets left out? For another insider this is going to be the best bit. “People will head for the index first and search for ‘China’. There was a time when McBride was with Brown in Beijing and was in the hotel bar for the whole night and entire morning. Wonder if that’ll get a mention?”
Kevin Toolis, whose play The Confessions of Gordon Brown is currently at London’s Trafalgar Theatre, said he talked to McBride as part of his play’s research. “As a fanatical member of Brown’s inner circle, working for ‘the boss’ was all-consuming for Damian. He had to fend off enemies and conspire with so-called press friends to further Brown’s premiership. And it all took its toll on his health.”
Toolis thinks that ultimately McBride was “deadly effective”. But despite the menace of his reputation, “he never had a strategic view of how to handle the press – because he wasn’t a journalist like Alastair Campbell”.
McBride eventually resigned after a well-documented scandal in 2009 surrounding emails linked to a Labour website, Red Rag, that had McBride’s fingerprints all over them. These included plans to create false rumours about key Tory politicians, such as regarding their sexuality and fake allegations about their families.
McBride’s book contains no epitaph on his career. But if he needs one, Macbeth Act 3, scene 1, is an option. As the king’s henchman says: “I am reckless what I do to spite the world.”
‘Power Trip: A decade of Policy, Plots and Spin’, is published by Biteback Publishing on 23 September
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