The saga of Damian McBride and his emails is the most damaging episode for Gordon Brown since the “non-election” fiasco in the autumn of 2007 – and in some ways is much more so.
McBride’s emails raise wider questions about Brown’s judgements in terms of whom he chooses as close allies, how he deals with opponents, and his approach to the media. Nor is the story a one-day-wonder over the Easter break. It will have wider consequences, curtailing Brown’s capacity to raise legitimate questions about the Tory leadership and stirring once more those within New Labour who have always been alarmed by his erratically brutal methods of leadership.
Above all, the emails confirm that McBride was no good at his job as the most senior media adviser to Brown in No 10. Irrespective of the crudely counter-productive attacks on David Cameron and others, why was he writing any of it down in the form of emails, a medium that is well known for its lack of security?
But McBride had always shown a reckless indifference to being caught out. He was often texting journalists with venomous messages or malevolent advice that took the breath away. On one occasion shortly before a presenter was about to interview a cabinet minister McBride texted him with the message: “Ask him about his drinking problem.” Again even if the attempted assassination of a minister was clever politics – and it was not – for the fingerprints to be all over the source was dangerously inept.
Yet Brown stuck with McBride and gave him immense leeway. Some of the others supposedly involved in media strategy in No 10 quite often had no idea where McBride was or what he was up to. Yet coming from a technical division in the Treasury, McBride had no background in journalism.
He recognised sometimes what would make a good news story and the importance of keeping a relationship going with a few influential political editors and that was more or less it. He mistook the occasionally positive front-page news story in a single newspaper, or an attack on a colleague or the Tories of which he had been the source, for a coherent media strategy.
But Brown has a naïve faith in the likes of McBride and one of his predecessors, Charlie Whelan. They worked for him and him alone. They dealt in their own way with enemies, actual or perceived. Yet in spite of all their work on behalf of their master, the person damaged most by their activities has been Brown. Finger prints were nearly always left at the scene of the crime. The end result was not a ghoulish assessment of the crime or its victims, but on the perpetrators and their political master. Always the question was asked: Why does Brown need to act in this way?
The manner of McBride’s departure is not therefore a minor matter. He worked directly for Brown. He was doing what he thought Brown wanted him to do. Brown must have been a huge admirer or else he would have removed him last autumn when he was under considerable pressure to do so. Instead Brown gave him a new title and let him carry on.
Indeed since becoming Prime Minister, Brown has been in the worst of all worlds. The new spin when he entered No 10 was that there would be no spin. Of course that was nonsense. Every Prime Minister is understandably obsessed with the media. Brown was no exception. And yet in an odd cack-handed way there was some truth in the claim.
Since Brown became Prime Minister he has had no effective media strategy. Monthly press conferences have been called when most senior journalists were away. Interviews have been given with no sense of what the message should be. Some previously sympathetic columnists have written recently that their calls to McBride were never returned, one reason perhaps why they became alienated.
Brown is the first Prime Minister for years to have no senior journalist at his side. Wilson had Joe Haines, Thatcher had Bernard Ingham, Blair had Alastair Campbell. All of them to varying degrees understood the rhythms of news. Brown had McBride, who did not, but thought he did. Without a clear and coherent media strategy in modern politics there is no chance of success. Few watch politics in the raw. They get a mediated version via the newspapers, blogs and broadcasting outlets.
There are many decent people working around the clock in No 10. The same applies to the so-called Brownites. I know them and they are in politics for honourable reasons. But this story will shape further in the minds of voters a sense that we are ruled by a bunch of bastards. Some Blairites and cabinet ministers who carry wounds from what they believed were assaults from McBride will also stir, wondering once more how he was allowed the freedom to undermine the reputation of the entire government.
More important, Brown’s capacity to attack the Conservatives has suddenly narrowed. There are entirely legitimate issues about the unconvincing political back story of Cameron and Osborne which are partly connected to their wealth and privileged backgrounds.
Arguably there is a superficial frivolity about their approach to politics that is a product of their pasts. I am not suggesting that such assertions are necessarily right or definitive, but they are fair game. It is a game that Brown will not be able to play easily now. Suddenly the Conservatives are much safer than they were or deserve to be.
Over this Easter break several cabinet ministers had planned to seize the usually quiet news agenda with a series of messages about the Government’s future direction. Instead their main messenger has become the story. Why was the messenger allowed to write such crass messages? Only Brown has the answer to that question.