If you spent 13 years climbing the greasy pole to the heart of British government, starting off as a lowly mandarin working on tax in the customs department yet ending as principal spin doctor to the Prime Minister, how would you narrate your journey and explain your choices and actions? Possibly not like this.
nowDamian McBride was a bright boy from an Irish family brought up in Finchley, North London. He attended the local state comprehensive and got into Peterhouse, Cambridge, spending four years notionally reading history. In 1996 he joined the British civil service as a graduate, despite, in McBride’s words, a characteristic “violent competitive streak” and tendencies towards “excess drinking, duplicitous instincts, preference for football over work, [and] fervent Irish nationalism”.
After a few years treading water in HM Revenue and Customs, McBride was appointed a press officer in the Treasury, where he came under the spell of Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer and later PM. McBride published his autobiography, Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin, in September 2013, just as the British political party conference season was underway. It was timed for maximum publicity: the book is a warts-and-all telling of McBride’s time with Brown.
Bizarrely, it is published by Iain Dale, who was one of the parties smeared in a set of emails that were hacked from the computer of McBride’s co-conspirator, Derek Draper, in an inchoate plot to damage the reputation of several Conservative MPs and activists. Among the most salacious ‘stories’ were that David Cameron was to be challenged to produce his medical records (he once admitted to visiting a sexual diseases clinic as a student) and George Osborne, who was alleged to have posed for a photograph wearing a bra, knickers and suspenders with his face blackened, was accused of having had sex with a prostitute. The emails were false and highly defamatory and their leak, to sensationalist right-wing blogger Paul Staines, was the tonne of bricks that shattered the camel’s back. After a decade of malevolent spinning, McBride had to go. (Even the book launch was darkly comic: at an interview at the Tory conference, Dale got into a fight with an eccentric anti-war protestor and his dog who hijacked an TV interview by McBride, for which he was later cautioned by police.)
Power Trip is McBride’s mea culpa, his apology for what was, and his apologia pro sua vita, his justification for why it was thus. The cribbed version goes something like this. McBride the advocate evolved to meet the insatiable appetite of rolling news and sensational news reporting; McBride the man was somewhat chuffed to be at the centre of national and international politics, and his dangerous temperament and ego were massaged by the charismatic personality of Brown and his acolytes, Ed Balls and, later, Ed Miliband – the current shadow chancellor and Leader of the Opposition respectively.
McBride reprised the role of the archetypal bullying media advisor. His style was varied but his instruments blunt. He repeatedly lied to the media, for instance, by omitting crucial key facts or simply telling barefaced untruths, threatening journalists with humiliation and ostracism if they published stories harmful to Brown or his allies, and briefing against friends and foes alike, even – nay, especially – MPs in his own Labour Party, in order to damage their political and personal reputations.
He did it so much that, like any good demon, bad happenings were blamed on him even if caused by another. Of the “very bad stories I was told which ended up on the front pages of tabloid newspapers”, there were those he peddled and those he rejected, and “a third category: stories that were nothing to do with me, but for which I was blamed because I was known to have form in this area.”
On occasion acting alone, McBride was a key lieutenant for Brown, in whose name he did some pretty unpleasant things as the emails which triggered his downfall demonstrate, and he is very defensive of Brown, who lost the 2010 general election when the Coalition government was formed. Brown was an odd figure as Prime Minister, intense and sincere with a brilliant mind but very poor social skills. (British comedy programmes still use a close-up clip of Brown’s face, frowning angrily and deep in thought, instantly beaming with a cheesy grin which falls seconds later as he thinks the camera has moved on.)
Listen to McBride’s judgment on Brown’s handling of the 2008/09 financial and banking crisis: “[H]aving indeed saved the world by giving every other country a template for how to rescue their banking systems and leading the global coordination for fiscal and monetary stimulus over that period, Gordon was ultimately left frustrated at not being able to finish the job from 2010 onwards.” McBride describes the Coalition’s failure to nominate Brown as managing director of the International Monetary Fund as “extraordinarily partisan” and “tremendously short-sighted”. These are somewhat revisionist and unorthodox judgments at best.
McBride, however, has a funny sense of being candid. He describes John Reid, an MP who went onto be a senior minister under Tony Blair as “slightly bullying…I didn’t even know I had a ‘list’ at that stage in my career, but he went on it from that moment.” Hardly warm words. Later on, McBride describes the animosity in Cabinet between his boss, Brown, and Reid, and McBride’s own “personal rivalry” with Reid’s aide.
When Brown and Reid faced-off for the party leadership, McBride delved into his “black book” of stories from Reid’s past: “After all, the stories about his past were going to come thick and fast if he had a chance of becoming Prime Minister”. As the stories flowed to pliant reporters, Reid decided not stand as leader, allowing Brown a clear shot as becoming PM. Yet in a recent article on the future of the civil service, McBride describes him as “my old friend John Reid”.
Some friend, Damian. As the old saw has it, with friends like these, who needs enemies?
The bare-faced cheek of the man is re-enforced by McBride’s own comments and asides throughout. Given his reputation and the substance of his biography, the reader can be forgiven for being sceptical for believing McBride’s sincerity when he asserts that, aside from not sacking Alasdair Darling as Chancellor in 2009, “I regret to say Gordon’s biggest and costliest mistake was his failure to bite the bullet and get rid of me entirely in his 2008 reshuffle when he had the chance, and when I was urging him to do so”, ostensibly a quid quo pro for the return of Peter Mandelson to government.
In fact, McBride’s instability makes it nigh on impossible to trust him at any stage in his book. Even his moments of softness, aside from the realpolitik, seem crocodile-like: in an effort to write tenderly about his girlfriend Balshen, for instance, she becomes less of a love-object and more of a prop.
McBride gives the appearance of having a good command of the policy facts without every actually being that interested in the substance of the ideas (it is telling that the ‘Socrates’ listed in the index refers to the legendary football player rather than legendary philosopher). There is little understanding of whether Britain was actually better or worse for 13 years of New Labour in-fighting.
Don’t get me wrong: Power Trip is a well-written work: the prose flows well and there are numerous crackling anecdotes. For anyone interested in modern politics, it is an instructive and incisive script. McBride’s story has the elements of classical drama. His myth is built over time by flattering friend and slating foe. The narrative arc in due course reaches apotheosis and then hubris before the gods of the British political and press establishment. It leads inexorably to nemesis and downfall. Writing Power Trip is McBride’s catharsis; he sees his whole story as a tragedy.
Yet what of mimesis, the reflection of true life and the virtues of beauty and truth in art? If this book apes what really happened in the life and times of Gordon Brown, it was a very ugly time indeed.
McBride worked for his Catholic secondary school immediately after his sacking in 2009, and is now head of external communications for Cafod, the Catholic agency for international development. Wiling as they were to forgive and embrace him, even his somewhat-liberal co-religionists did not want the filthy lucre of royalties from Power Trip. McBride plays up his loose Catholic Christianity in the book, and frames his decision to publish against the backdrop of Confession. We can forgive, but the harm, to British politics and the free press, has been done.