Andrew Neil

Brown let the dogs out

Brown let the dogs out
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When you keep a kennel of attack dogs then I guess you can't entirely claim ignorance or absence of responsibility when one of them bites several passers by. That explains why Gordon Brown's apologetic non-apology for the attempted muckraking of Damian McBride has failed to satisfy not just the Tories but many Labour supporters too.


After all, though McBride was fired for plotting to slime leading Tories, it is Labour politicians who have more often suffered at the hands of his dark arts -- even supposed Brownite loyalists such as Douglas Alexander were victims. So many Labour MPs were as pleased to see McBride get his comeuppance as were the Tories -- and politicians on the Right and the Left are not inclined to leave it there. This story still has legs.


The Prime Minister now wants a new code of conduct for special advisers -- though plain folk outside the Westminster Village will wonder why what is now being proposed wasn't already in place -- but no code can produce pristine behaviour if the approach and attitude of the people you employ is steeped in attack-dog culture. Many Labour MPs despair that that has always been the case with those closest to the PM.


His most trusted advisers include or have included not just McBride but Charlie Whelan (who saw off Peter Mandleson on Mr Brown's behalf when he was Chancellor and is now a regular visitor to Downing Street again); Tom Watson (Cabinet Office Minister and general enforcer as ruthless as McBride -- he was the man who delivered a Postman Pat video to Mr Brown's son while plotting to oust Tony Blair); and Mandelson himself (who spins as much as he runs his department).


And now we learn that the PM was dining with Derek Draper at Chequers (no less!) only a couple of weeks after McBride and Draper had started plotting their scurrilous Red Rag website.


These are people -- tough, take-no-prisoners, do-whatever-it-takes types -- who are prepared not just to diss the Tories but do down any Labour politicians who get in Mr Brown's way. And they have enjoyed the PM's full confidence.


Now they are running a mile from the McBride car crash. McBride himself says he is "shocked" that his e-mails have reached the public domain. But since he was the one originally planning to put them into the public domain, we can take it he is "shocked" in the way the police chief in "Casablanca" was "shocked" when told there were Nazis in his favourite cafe, as I said in my Today interview this morning.


And it is now clear that Mr Draper was, how shall we put it, economical with the truth when he told me on the Daily Politics last month that Mr McBride had nothing to do with his web activities. Now we know differently. His denial of McBride’s involvement came in a clash with his fellow blogger and nemesis, Guido Fawkes, who even hinted on air at the McBride story he had up his sleeve.


Culture is more important than code and as long as the PM surrounds himself with the people he does I'd be surprised if much changes -- and I don't expect any cleansing of the Downing Street stables this side on an election. The PM is comfortable with his attack dogs and they adore him. No code will change that. And as a daunting election approaches he thinks he needs them more than ever.