Andy McSmith: Why I didn't hack it as Rory Bremner's political adviser

Tuesday 19 November 2013 05:33

Tuning in to Desert Island Discs the other morning, I heard Rory Bremner say that, until four years ago, he did not really know who he was. Perhaps I can help. I knew Rory Bremner briefly, 10 years ago, and he was a bit of a prat.

He was going through a phase of reinventing himself as a serious satirist, after being a successful comic, so his office in Oxford Circus was cluttered with political journalists who had come in to help. Most did so unpaid, lured by the glitter of show business. I was actually hired to come and be his political adviser. I lasted barely a week before being – unceremoniously – fired.

I should never have accepted the job in the first place but, like everyone else, I was drawn in by Bremner's brilliance as a mimic, which is beyond dispute. One day when I was in his office, someone mentioned Gordon Brown. Bremner said that he had never "done" Brown, and launched into an instant, unscripted impersonation of the future Chancellor. It was all there: the deep Scottish growl, the manner in which he enunciates ideas, and a nervous movement in the side of the mouth, which I think is the product of a rugby injury. It was perfect.

But when I was not being bowled over by his professional skill, there was nothing else for me to do. Bremner had a team of very good scriptwriters working out of the office, who sent in their contributions, some of which I was asked to check. Without exception, they had done their research properly. I was a pointless quality checker.

There was also an atmosphere in the office which I did not like, because it reminded me of being in Neil Kinnock's office when the former Labour leader was under exceptional pressure, or even – to be more insulting – of being in Robert Maxwell's office.

There could be no meaningful work-related conversation between senior people, because everything had to go through Rory. Every day was a competition for Rory's attention. Rory could do no wrong. Some of his staff even had a special way of intoning the name "Rory" as if the very word had spiritual significance.

The news that I was in there spread very rapidly, so I was having to accept the envious congratulations of friends with whatever enthusiasm I could dissemble. Unexpectedly, the one kindred spirit I found was Alastair Campbell, who was then still a journalist. He said he had been plagued by long telephone calls from Bremner's office, seeking political tips, without – of course – any hint that they might pay him for his time.

Years later, Bremner achieved his ambition to be recognised as a great satirist with the fabulous take-off of Blair-Campbell. The world would think Campbell very churlish if he complained that someone who used to pester him for free advice had prospered by taking the piss out of him.

After a couple of days of numbing boredom, I suddenly hit upon something useful to do. It transpired that Bremner had played a prank on some of the Tory MPs who were making John Major's life miserable at that time, by attacking his European policy. Bremner rang them, pretending to be Major, seeking their advice. Of course they fell for it, and were obsequious in their pleasure at receiving a personal call from the prime minister they had so boldy attacked in public.

Bremner had himself mentioned this story in an interview, and given it to Private Eye, but I thought it could be aired more widely. I approached the MPs, recorded their furious reactions, and gave the story to a newspaper.

That was the end of my short career as an adviser to Rory Bremner. He gave orders that I was not to be allowed into his office again. I was not even to be paid for the time I had been there, because Rory – I was told – was very protective of his privacy, and could not have someone in his entourage whose behaviour might provoke tabloid newspapers to start looking into his life.

It seemed silly to me to hire a journalist and then be so shocked when he behaved like a journalist. The tabloids went through Bremner's private life anyway, without help or provocation from me, as they were bound to do.

Meanwhile, he found a new adviser who was not a journalist. He was Derek Draper, who had worked for Peter Mandelson and therefore knew how to handle fragile egos. Later, he was the central figure in a scandal about lobbyists who reputedly offered their commercial clients access to ministers in return for contracts. Draper need not have bothered. He could have had his clients ring up Rory, who can be any minister you like.

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