Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin, by Damian McBride, Biteback Publishing, RRP£20
The defining characteristics of the New Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were the internecine feuding between their camps and the party’s aggressive media management. Damian McBride stood at the nexus of both; as Mr Brown’s press chief he was a skilful but ferocious partisan for a politician he describes as “the greatest man I have ever met”. In his idol’s name, he earned the sobriquet “mad dog”, briefing, smearing and spinning until one bite too far saw him put down.
McBride finally fell from grace after the leak of emails proposing personal smears on Mr Brown’s enemies and opponents. It was the end many would have predicted, for while his success was built on mastery of detail and relentless hard work, his time was characterised by an obsessional, cruel and alcohol-fuelled recklessness. His loyalty was only to Mr Brown, not to the rest of government which was essentially grouped into friends, enemies and collateral damage.
McBride has now written an unsparing yet defiant confessions of a “nasty bastard” – a detailed account of a powerful media manipulator at work, with advice on when lying works and honesty as a tool of deceit. It is pacy and McBride writes with a nice turn of phrase. David Miliband, the former foreign secretary, is described as a man who, while talking to Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, “would still look over their shoulders to see if there was anyone more important around”.
As a glimpse into the Brown bunker it offers much, but there is little by way of policy discussion. The major events are skated over and discussed as process rather than strategy. The financial crisis that many consider Mr Brown’s finest hour merits only a few pages. Inevitably, the book will be scoured for what it says of the two Eds, Miliband and Balls, who now run Labour but who were then Mr Brown’s closest aides. Mr Balls – contrary to most accounts by those less disposed towards him – emerges the more likeable, and the man best able to manage Mr Brown’s moods. Mr Miliband is more detached but also the one who ultimately turns on McBride. Both, with Mr Brown, are spared blame for McBride’s excesses.
Mr Brown is often the victim and plots in his name always take place without his knowledge. But though Mr McBride gives his friends plausible deniability about his antics it seems beyond belief that, when everyone in Westminster knew of his style, they alone were ignorant of his methods.
But if McBride spares others, he does not spare himself. He is undoubtedly sorry as much for what he has become as for what he did. At times he blames politics for this; at others he shows his dark side already fairly well developed. An early chapter dwells on his misdeeds as a university footballer, intentionally injuring opponents. There is a pub tales quality to the book which at times reads like a political Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby’s catalogue of a soccer obsessive, but while that book brimmed with warmth and insight, this one simply records all the fouls. For this is a man who despite a fierce intelligence and Cambridge degree, prefers to cast himself as a roguish outsider, an Irish Catholic interloper who implausibly flukes his way into the civil service fast track.
One personal story stands out. McBride largely avoids talking of his childhood or family but he recounts a day when his hard-to-please father comes to watch him play football at college. McBride’s team wins 11-0 and he scores five goals but as he leaves the pitch, his dad walks past his son to congratulate the opposing team’s captain for the way he kept his side going when all was hopeless. This is almost the only story he tells of a father he loved and admired. Within five years he is showing an almost filial devotion to Mr Brown.
And this ultimately is a love story. His devotion to Mr Brown is unwavering. While Alastair Campbell stood up to Mr Blair, McBride seemed in awe of Mr Brown. Yet ironically, almost every anecdote serves to diminish the man he is attempting to raise up. Tales of selfishness and tantrums litter the pages. But anyone who sees these as failings is a traitor. There are, of course, accounts of human warmth and kindness but these stand out as exceptions. Not that McBride sees the flaws as being Mr Brown’s. When during his press chief’s one foreign holiday in six years, Mr Brown phones him three times each day asking when he is returning. McBride feels guilty for not being there.
Perhaps this is unsurprising for McBride’s story epitomises, in some way, Mr Brown’s. In the end, what we have is a man of some brilliance who like his master became so consumed by his demons, his need to win and the trenches mentality that he allowed himself to be defined by his flaws.
The writer is the managing editor of FT.com and a former chief political correspondent