Alex Massie

How much does Damian McBride’s disgrace actually matter?

Text settings

The first thing to say about the downfall of Damian McBride is, of course, how entertaining it is. Gordon Brown's machine has deserved this kind of comeuppance for years. These are, and always have been, thoroughly disreputable people and, while there are plenty of people in the Labour party who might be wondering today why they've tolerated the McBrides of this world for so long, the questions don't end there.

After all, McBride and his ilk depend upon the connivance of the press to operate effectively. There's something amusing too about seeing the press do its finest Captain Renault impression, declaring itself Shocked! that this is the way that Downing Street's battalion of spivs and bruisers operates when the press has spent years enjoying the political pornography these people produce. Take this marvellous paragraph from the News of the World's story:

Perhaps the most appalling smear was the false rumour that David Cameron suffers from an embarrassing health problem. We have decided not to disclose the nature of it.

News of the Screws

And now that McBride and Draper and the rest of them have been outed, we see that, far from being masters of the "black arts" these liars are revealed to be operating at a level commensurate with, say, the College Republicans in the United States. Watergate this is not, no matter how much Iain Dale and other bloggers might want to suggest otherwise. I mean, really, is this the best McBride et al could do? The curtain is drawn back and we see schoolboys - vicious, for sure, but schoolboys nonetheless - whose incompetence is just as startling as their lack of ideas. Lee Atwater or Karl Rove would be embarrassed* to be mentioned in the same story, never mind breath, as these people.

So yes, in one sense this story does illuminate the Prime Minister's incorrigably tribal vew of politics and it is telling too in the manner in which it exposes this government's intellectual and moral bankruptcy. But, at the risk of dissenting from the rest of the Spectator team, I wonder how much this will be seen to matter outside the Westminster Village.

At best it seems likely to confirm voters' prejudices and remind them that this ministry is exhausted, just as Labour's relentless exposure of "Tory sleaze" played a confirming role in the destruction of John Major's government. In that sense, then, it does matter. But it may also simply increase the public's sense that all our politicians are "at it", further undermining - albeit with good reason!  - public confidence in the political system.

So I wonder - hesitantly - if this might also be what one might call a Reverse Davis. That is, it's a bigger story inside the Westminster Village than it is outside it. When David Davis resigned his seat, Westminster instantly declared him a madman, but he tapped into a genuine and more-widespread-than-appreciated-at-Westminster public mood. McBride's disgrace, on the other hand, is seen as a Massive Story inside Westminster but the further one is from the House of Commons the more this might, I think, be seen as a bit of a Dog Bites Man story.

That doesn't mean it isn't useful, merely that an exchange of emails between people the public has never heard of about a website that was not published may not be the earthquake you might think it must be were you just to judge its impact by the attention it's receiving in the blogosphere.

And as I say, while this incident quite properly further disgraces an already disgraced government, it also asks some awkward questions of a press corps that has permitted these people to shape so much of the public discourse for the past 15 years.

Still, none of that should distract one from enjoying this sorry, shabby, hilarious spectacle.

*UPDATE: So, for that matter, would LBJ or the Kennedys. Or the Clintons. OK, Mr Bertelsen?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticslabour partywestminster