Coffee House

Damian McBride and today’s Downing Street spin operation

20 September 2013

Damian McBride’s memoirs will naturally make uncomfortable reading for the Labour party, but the current occupants of Downing Street will also be feasting on his lesson in the dark arts, and wondering if there is anything they can take from it too. This sounds like an odd thing to say when so much condemnation for the poisoned operation of the Brownites (and, as Peter Oborne points out, the operation around Blair too) is flying about today. But the question of whether the current government needs its own Damian McBride is one that has occupied Tory MPs who like to think about these things for a while. In February, when McBride appeared before the Public Administration Select Committee, he was asked by Robert Halfon whether he thought the current operation needed someone like him:

Halfon: Just putting the negative stuff to one side that affected you in your last years, do you think Downing Street needs a Damian McBride?

McBride: It depends what, I don’t want to talk about myself in the third person, but it depends what kind of Damian McBride, what year I was working in.

In a positive sense, you need someone who is prepared to get on top of every single thing that’s going on and spot problems. I mean, to go back to, not to get into the issue that we’re were talking about that’s been on the front page of the Daily Mail for three days, but I don’t think anybody will be in any doubt that that story, which might be a terrible story anyway, has been made worse by the media handling and by people not sort of seeing the immediate problem coming down the pipe. I think this committee has reflected before, and Lord O’Donnell when he was before the committee recently, said well as far as I am concerned special advisers are a good thing, but special advisers when they’re briefing the media, they’re a bad thing. And I don’t think you can see the two as separate, because if you are not paying attention to the sort of potential media problems, just potential problems, but if the media is going to light on them then you know that they are big problems, you’re not paying attention to those then it doesn’t give you the space, the freedom and almost the momentum in some ways to concentrate on your big picture items…

The funny thing about the current Downing Street operation is that it is composed of two formal factions – the Conservatives and the Lib Dems – and yet the two groups tend to get on rather well most of the time. There are few stand-up rows and very little aggressive briefing against the other side. The heart of the one-party Labour government was poisonous and tumultuous, but the heart of the Coalition is calm: almost eerily so. It also lacks the destructive tendency that McBride confesses to in today’s extract in the Mail: he was happy to destroy anyone with a briefing just so, in his own words, ‘I could show… that I could p*** higher up the wall’. That doesn’t happen these days either, to the Coalition’s credit.

Still, the point that McBride made in his select committee evidence, and the key lesson from today’s extract at least was about absolute control of the media agenda and the ‘grid’ of news stories, an instinctive knowledge of what it was that journalists needed, from colour and detail to tip-offs about rows, and the ability to see a problem approaching and deal with it before it exploded. Downing Street seems to be getting better at this, but it’s let more than a few howlers through in the past few years. McBride himself said that whether or not another political machine would want to emulate him depended on the year of his career under the microscope. Today the poisonous end is under scrutiny, and Number 10’s ability to avoid that thus far has been a credit to its occupants. But that doesn’t mean that all the years of his career are worth discounting if you’re a spinner under this regime.

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Show comments
  • Smithersjones2013

    Vermin like McBride should not be given this sort of oxygen. Leave them in the sewers where they belong!

  • HookesLaw

    Its pretty miserable article, desperately linking McB with the present govt

  • HookesLaw

    They have to get on well in order to run the country
    They are from 2 parties its no Secret
    Blair and Brown put their catfight within their own party before the Country

  • Jambo25

    4 words Andy Coulson, Lynton Crosby.

    • Russell

      1 word……Blair!

  • Mynydd

    There is a major difference between the Labour party being in government and the Conservative party being in power. The right wing press, and the Spectator is an example, readily print anti-Labour anti articles, where as they only print pro conservative articles. With respect to the question of whether the current government needs its own Damian McBride, they have, he’s call Crosby.

    • starfish

      Yep. Whereas the BBC broadcasting 24/7 across the whole media on umpteen channels has no impact whatsoever.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I never heard such crap. You are suggesting that ‘left leaning’ media regularly include anti-Labour stuff. And have you ever read the Daily Telegraph. They have a lefty lovey columnist EVERY WEEK. She’s an idiot but she’s there.

      • Mynydd

        I am glad you accept that Crosby is now Mr Cameron’s McBride following Mr Coulson’s fall from grace.

    • Span Ows

      “The right wing press, and the Spectator is an example, readily print anti-Labour anti articles, where as they only print pro conservative articles.

      …what planet are you from?

      • Mynydd

        Planet reality: tell me who in the right wing press, including the Spectator, were critical and nailed Mr Osborne to the cross, when he extended his own deficit reduction plan, from one parliament to two. Who reported that maybe Mr Brown/Darling’s two parliament deficit reduction policy was right after all. No all we get is Mr Cameron/Coulson/Crosby’s spin, it’s all Labour’s fault. For three years we have had, Labour are a party of spend, spend and more spending, borrow, borrow and more borrowing. Yet not a word about Mr Osborne borrowing £60bn more than he planned, and spending, spending, and even more spending in the housing market. Now in respect to anti-Labour please re-read the no less than four articles published yesterday on McBride’s history book. It would never happen if a book had been published “How we briefed against Mrs Thatcher, which led to her downfall”

        • Span Ows

          I suggest you read through any of the pieces by Fraser on Osborne in the last 2 years or more! Do it now, ANY article on Osborne and borrowing here has been about too much borrowing blah blah blah!

          4 on McBride? Jeez there were about 14 on the Lib Dems and nobody gives a damn; at last some juicy stuff on the rotten corrupt vile nepotistic spiteful useless pile of ordure that was New Labour, especially Crash Gordon and his inner cabal.

  • toco10

    As McBride’s forte was spreading lies about people why on earth should we believe anything he now has to say either in writing or verbally.Given their closeness to the dysfunctional Brown if I were Red Ed,Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper/Balls then I should be very concerned to make sure McBride was not a person with whom I had any connection.However as they were all part of Brown’s inner circle distancing themselves totally is easier said than done.

    • Jambo25

      Given that many of the people McBride is writing about are qualified lawyers and the rest have plenty of lawyery, scuzzy pals; I suspect that all the information has been checked and re-checked to the Nth degree. It’s true alright.

    • HookesLaw

      Why believe anything he says to a Committee

      • Jambo25

        For the reason I outlined above.

  • Denis_Cooper

    I look forward to the next Spectator article agonising over why so many members of the general public seem to be turning away from politics, and party memberships are falling, and turnout in elections is going down, etc, without mentioning anything about the unsavoury kind of people who dominate the main parties.

    • 2trueblue

      Conservative membership has dropped, not just because of Cameron, but because there is no longer a strong party. The coalition has done massive damage and Cameron indicating that he would consider another coalition is a big turn off for true Conservatives.

      • HookesLaw

        l am a true conservative and l do out want another coalition
        But would you rather have a labour government and just plain refuse to ‘consider’ a coalition?

        • Smithersjones2013

          l am a true conservative

          Which goes a long way to explain why 60% of the electorate won’t even consider voting Tory.

          • McRobbie

            I presume you are under the delusion that the 60% will now vote for the real nasty party? Or do you accept democracy and that a lot less than 40% will vote for miliee and the spinners?

        • 2trueblue

          Voting for a coalition is not on the agenda. To hear Cleggy make his speech this week was sickening. The Libdums have no idea what democracy is about. Cameron has very little time to get his party back and I don’t think he can do it. I don’t think that he has any idea what it is all about.

    • Russell

      And turning away from the press and any political tv programs and politically biased so called presenters of news, without mentioning anything about the unsavoury kind of people who dominate the media!

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