When Gordon Brown eventually became aware that his Downing Street was about to be engulfed in the Smeargate scandal, he called Damian McBride to try to get to the bottom of the story. The latter recounts the conversation verbatim in Power Trip, his tell-all book dedicated ‘to Gordon, the greatest man I ever met’. Brown says: ‘OK, Damian, I need your word that you will tell me the truth. If the years we’ve worked together mean anything, I need your absolute word.’ ‘Yep, of course,’ McBride replies solemnly, ‘I give you my word, I promise I’ll tell the truth.’ ‘Right,’ says Brown, ‘firstly, is there anyone else in No. 10 or in the government or in the Labour party who is involved in these emails or this website? Anyone with any involvement at any level?’ ‘No. Absolutely, definitely not,’ swears McBride, before saying vaguely that there was one meeting with party people where the idea of starting a website was mentioned. That meeting was with Ray Collins, the then general secretary of the Labour party, at the party paymaster Unite’s Westminster HQ where they were trying to get funding support for the planned website. So, in reality, the true answer was ‘Yes.’
McBride’s recurring theme is that his method was to deploy ‘lying without lying’, and here is a prime example of that. The prime minister he serves, the man he tells us he admires more than any other, pleads with him for the truth and McBride reassures him in absolute terms before adding a disingenuous qualifier which means the opposite. Those of us who have not spent a decade plotting and spinning can see this for what it must surely be — a lie.
Westminster insiders and political reporters have gleefully digested the well-told tales in this long-awaited book. Much that was suspected has been confirmed and will not surprise the lobby reporters who dealt with the author on a daily basis. McBride had two masters, Gordon Brown and the lobby, and he tried to please them both, with considerable success. In his defence, he claims that much of the supposed internecine warfare waged in the Sunday papers was a result of his trading with political editors a juicier story to displace a negative one about Brown. His traducing of so many Labour ministers was, by this reasoning, nobly to protect his master.
Similar sophistry is employed to deflect the oft-made claim by Blairites such as Alastair Campbell that while they were trying to spin positively for the government McBride was continually undermining them to further the Brownite faction. Like the competition between Coke and Pepsi, this Blairite v. Brownite narrative played out for years in the newspapers, supposedly, according to McBride, helping New Labour to dominate the political market in much the same way the colas’ marketing helps them dominate beverage consumption. Self-serving arguments like this underlie the confessional anecdotes throughout the memoir.
McBride is a graduate of Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he was tutored by the great Conservative historian Maurice Cowling, who taught that politics was not a noble battle of ideas but a low game where players were motivated by self-interest. But the subtlety of Cowling’s thinking seems to have been lost on his student, who seems only to have absorbed the idea that power should be pursued by any means necessary. The decade of malpractice undertaken by McBride is of a pattern, when ‘lying without lying’ helped him evade being rusticated from Peterhouse, and later to survive an investigation by Special Branch after one leak that was particularly damaging to Tony Blair.
That he had to employ ‘lying without lying’ at the very end of his career, with a Gordon Brown pleading with him to be truthful, suggests that the only person taken in by this was himself. The college authorities, Special Branch investigators and Brown himself all suspected that he was lying, although they could not prove it.
It cost McBride his career, the woman he loved, his friends and his reputation. His post-resignation months in the wilderness, drying out after he left Downing Street and before he was employed as business liaison officer by his old school, gave him time to reflect, and he seems genuinely to regret some of the terrible things he did to innocent people. But lying is lying, even when the words are deployed legalistically. His new-found self-awareness does not extend to accepting this sober truth about himself.
Those buying this book hoping for the whole truth about McBride’s decade working under Gordon and with the two Eds will be disappointed. Ed Balls in particular is spared any critical scrutiny; McBride repeatedly protests Balls’s innocence — something many of us in the Westminster village who observed those days find surprising.
On a personal note, as McBride’s nemesis, allow me to correct at least one of his claims. He spins that I was ‘playing with a stacked deck’, running ‘a mysterious dark-arts operation’ against him. The truth is that when Derek Draper tried to portray Iain Dale (now McBride’s publisher) and myself as racists, it pricked the conscience of a fair-minded Labour party source. I got a phone call out of the blue telling me that there were emails that could prove that Downing Street, in the form of the PM’s press adviser himself, was behind those smears. Ironically, McBride’s confession in Power Trip that he would — in breach of the Official Secrets Act — surreptitiously log in to Brown’s secure government email system and retrieve information to repackage and leak to the lobby, means that, of the two of us, he is the one likely to be in trouble for email hacking.
Guido Fawkes is a political blogger.
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This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 5 October 2013Tags: Book review, Ed Balls, Gordon Brown, History, lobby reporters, lying, Official Secrets Act, Politics, spin, Tony Blair, Westminster