Many pages have been blackened in recent weeks with remarks about this book. It seemed important to me to read it, as I spent eight years surrounded by the dark arts of spin, smear and briefing, scarcely engaging in any of them myself. My thoughts turned at the time to murder rather than character assassination, but I managed to restrain myself from that too. Such is politics. I confess myself a Blairite, which I was not when Tony became leader in 1994, nor when the Labour Government was formed in 1997, which election saw me into Parliament, one of precisely six Labour women not selected from an all-woman shortlist, though that is by the by. So the cohort around Gordon Brown during the decade covered by this book, 1999-2009, was unknown to me, both personally and in their various doings. No, comrades, I became a Blairite because of the Labour Government, and not the other way round. And especially because of the Chicago Doctrine after 1999, though again it took me a while, as a backbencher far from the inner circles of government, to understand the implications of that doctrine for both UK foreign policy and the world. But that again is another story, and not one McBride concerns himself with here.
The book is well written, and approximately the first two-thirds of it are utterly fascinating in terms of what they reveal about spin, smear and the dark arts in general. Not who was smeared, who briefed against and so on - anyone in politics who read the papers in those days could see in any story who was being briefed against and approximately by whom. Of course it’s different now, and in many ways more transparent, as we don’t have to wait for the next morning’s papers or that day’s Evening Standard to see the stories and the briefings and the latest poison in the diary columns - they get Tweeted in our faces every minute.
McBride explains himself very clearly at the very start of the book. He could not abide defeat. Not at all. If he couldn’t win by fair means, in college football or in anything else, he would win by foul. That tells you what you need to know about his tactics and attitude. It is clearly combined with immense energy (an underrated quality in politics: there are many who have failed for lack of it) and huge talent for dealing with information. I started my (so-called) career as a civil servant, not, obviously, in the fast stream as McBride did, but as a translator in the intelligence services, and the obstacles to promotion for anyone who was not exactly like their boss and their boss’s boss, then as now, were almost insurmountable. But McBride came through that. And then let himself be politicised, while remaining a civil servant. And was brought down by Guido, says Guido. I think Dolly Draper had a hand in it, but hey, what do the details matter at this late stage. You could argue that the politicisation was not his call, but Gordon Brown’s. Maybe. But by their works shall ye know them.
I enjoyed the book greatly, especially for the honesty (a rarity in any memoir of a life in politics) and self-deprecation (ditto) and the wit. He says of one candidate that his political views in relation to same-sex relationships were “closer to Leviticus than Liberace”. I loved that. He exposes, intentionally or not, the Ed Balls doublethink: in 2000, when truckers were blockading Britain in search of greater subsidies for polluters, McBride quotes Balls as saying “We’re cutting duty … because it’s the right thing to do and it’s good for the environment”.
McBride sounds a little quaint sometimes when writing about those times, or perhaps in bad faith, depending how charitable you are minded to be. When little Fraser Brown was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, he says “a spin doctor today would say there was no public interest and demand an injunction”. He says “These tactics were largely unknown back in 2006”. Were they? Hmmm.
“The number of voters in their constituencies and councils who would never vote Labour again as long as George W. Bush’s wingman remained in Downing Street.” Oh, right. And the 2005 election? After Iraq? With Tony as leader? Eh, Damian? *sound of tumbleweed*
“Gordon … got [Tony] his final year in power … the unceremonious immediate ousting of Labour’s most successful leader [Harold Wilson won more elections. Ed.] would have been a terrible scar for the party to bear, in the same way that Margaret Thatcher’s removal affected the Tories for years afterwards.” No. The situation, and the parties, were different. What happened when Tony was removed was that there was no longer a Labour Government after the next election. Obviously. And that a lot of Blairite former ministers and henchpeople were cast into the outer darkness. And that the barking mad Cuba-loving Saddam Hussein fans in the Labour General Committees up and down the land felt happy and safe, in opposition once again. That’s it.
I didn’t know Gordon said this, according to McBride: “The truth might hurt you, but it’s the lie that kills you.” Ain’t that the truth.
Gordon as PM: “Gordon’s previous reliance on set-piece moments like the Budget [normally listened to in silence, Ed.], and the drawn-out decision-making that led up to them, was fundamentally unsuited to the fast-paced and usually random nature of events in No. 10”.
Bob Shrum, when Gordon was deciding not to go to the country in 2007, told the meeting, “Well, if the worst comes to the worst and you only get three more years, there’s a lot you can do in three years. Jack Kennedy only had three years.” Which, McBride seems to say, clinched the issue, and “Gordon walked out of the room and didn’t look back. And that was that.”
Hilarious too on Gordon’s general personal and especially sartorial ineptitude. Terrifying on the Milibands. Given that Ed looks likely at the time of writing to be the next Prime Minister. Be afraid. Be very afraid,
Thanks, Damian (we have never met, readers) for this book. Keep the royalties, and move on.