Damian McBride knew: Get caught and you walk alone

It did not damage Gordon Brown's image that he seemed to practise gangland politics

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Damian McBride's book is bad news for the study of politics. Today's students are already obsessed with Alastair Campbell who "manipulated" the media. They have a simple model in their heads of politics as a professional sport in which alpha-male spin doctors decide what appears in the newspapers and on television and most politicians are feeble creatures who do as they are told.

McBride's book is so interesting and well written that it will feed this misconception about how politics works. Worse, because he writes the repentant sinner character (himself) so convincingly, there is a danger that the book will be turned into a film. I can see the scene in which McBride stares at the picture in the News of the World of the junior civil servant dragged into his vindictive campaign against a junior minister who had annoyed not Gordon Brown but McBride himself. "It dawned on me then that at no point had I stopped to think: 'What about her?'" Cue swelling music. "I asked myself: 'What's happened to you? What kind of person have you become?' I should have walked away that day and never come back. To my eternal regret, I did not. Instead, I did what I always did: I shrugged and carried on, becoming more and more depressed and detached, and losing all sense of judgement."

Beguiling as the confessional is, it tells us little about what matters in politics. One striking line is that McBride had an unspoken understanding with Brown, which was: "Don't question my methods." At face value, that reduces the value of the entire book, as it becomes the account of a rogue, operating without the knowledge of the guy in charge. But Brown knew precisely what McBride was up to and trusted him to get on with it. It was done on the "no fingerprints, don't get caught" rule, until his prints were on a Tory smear, he got caught and Brown sacked him.

As the Daily Mail knows, which is why it paid a six-figure sum for the serialisation rights, this is not helpful to Ed Miliband. If Brown knew what McBride was up to, so did Ed Balls and so did Miliband. But it did not damage Brown's image that much that he seemed to practise a form of gangland politics. He was unpopular for different reasons: for his policies and his incompetent administration. Thus Miliband is hardly likely to be much affected by the book. Our ComRes poll today found that only 25 per cent of voters say that Miliband is "too closely associated with Gordon Brown for my liking", with 40 per cent disagreeing. If the link with Brown doesn't hurt him, a theoretical link with another Brownite of whom most voters haven't heard is hardly likely to.

What might be important, however, is what the book tells us about what Ed Miliband was like as a minister in Brown's government. As he presents himself in Brighton this week as the alternative prime minister, you might think that his record in office might warrant more attention than it has received. In the extracts so far, McBride says little about Miliband and less about his ministerial record.

The only story is about the Cabinet debate about a third runway at Heathrow at the end of 2008. It was "the first time I ever heard Balls say anything remotely negative about Miliband", says McBride. Miliband, as energy and climate change secretary, "effectively threatened to resign" rather than agree to the airport's expansion. "Balls was genuinely outraged that Miliband could ignore the need to expand airport capacity just for the sake of his reputation with the green lobby and his own political positioning."

The true story of that episode is a bit more complicated, which is that Miliband's positioning was both more subtle and more uncertain than that. He was caught between the green idealists among Labour Party members who have a third of the votes in a leadership election, and the support for an extra runway from Unite, the union that would help to deliver another third of the votes. Miliband was quite happy with how that decision turned out. Having fought for the best possible green conditions, the Cabinet gave the go-ahead and he didn't resign. (Now the coalition has abandoned the third runway, Miliband has abandoned it too. Balls is still unimpressed.)

McBride's confessional tittle tattle does not give us this level of detail. For that we have to turn to books such as Anthony Seldon and Guy Lodge's Brown at 10. They report that Brown felt Miliband had been a "bit of a disappointment" at the Cabinet Office; that he had spent his time "fiddling around"; and he was "indecisive". He was "better" at energy and climate change, but then they fell out over Heathrow.

The indecision is a continuing story. As leader of the opposition he is surrounded by people who express their frustration privately at his dithering. Recently one person came out of a meeting with more than a dozen people in Miliband's office, complaining: "He agonises and agonises; he doesn't know how to make a decision." Of course, indecision is not always the worst thing. Barack Obama raised it to an art form. But he is Barack Obama, and the President never worked with someone like Damian McBride.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul

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