Gordon Brown finds his high ideals sucked down into the swamp. In seeking to dis­associate himself from his aide, Damian McBride, the prime minister has been tormented by a persistent problem – not of his making, but not of his rejecting either. That is that the conduct of politics today now appears to demand the kind of skills in character assassination displayed by Mr McBride in his series of e-mails to the former Labour aides, Derek Draper and Charlie Whelan.

Once political parties and programmes decline in importance, once the news media become increasingly concerned with the reporting of personality and once the internet – with its instant response ability, its tendency to destroy secrets and its vast memory – becomes the dominant medium, then scandal, gossip and personality come into the foreground as main elements in the political struggle.

The Conservatives, rightly, have made the McBride e-mails a large issue. They must, however, reflect on the last time George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, was comprehensively smeared. In October 2005, the News of the World published a picture of Mr Osborne, aged 22, posing with a self-confessed prostitute and cocaine user. Mr Osborne strongly denied the prostitute’s claim that the white powder visible in the photograph was cocaine. The editor of the News of the World at the time, Andy Coulson – forced to resign in 2007 over a separate scandal, the interception of messages between senior members of the royal family – is now head of communications for David Cameron, the Conservative leader.

Mr Coulson was hired not for his political but for his media nous. He had, self-confessedly, little interest in politics, having reported on show­business and celebrities before being elevated to the editorship – although, in an interview with Tony Blair before the 2001 election, he asked the then prime minister whether he and his wife Cherie had joined the “mile-high club” (had sex in an aircraft toilet). In appointing him to such a key post, Mr Cameron was signalling, both to the media and to his party, that he would mould the Conservatives’ presentation around tropes that a tabloid professional would judge had most impact.

The coverage of politics on the web – benefiting from a culture in which almost nobody sues – focuses as much on the personal as on the political. Paul Staines, who runs the right-leaning website Guido Fawkes and who revealed the e-mail traffic between McBride and his colleagues, believes that conventional political coverage in the UK is the preserve of a cosy elite in which secrets are kept and scandals routinely covered up: he has previously gloried in revealing John Prescott’s affair with his diary secretary.

A new US website now gaining traction – Politico.com – covers politics in a much more personal and sometimes abrasive way than conventional US reportage. Significantly, it was founded by two former “straight” political reporters, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, who left senior political reporting jobs on The Washington Post because they found their beat too constrained.

The “personal is political” was a radical feminist cry of the 1960s, meaning that such issues as abortion, contraception and sexual orientation were fit subjects for campaigns and legislative action. It is now pressed into service as a catch-all rationale for reporting that invades space which men and women in public life had wished, for good reasons and bad, to keep private.

The would-be reputation assassins all believe that the personal is where political battles should be fought. In the case of Mr McBride and Mr Whelan, it has been their practice. Mr Draper – who took time off full-time political work to train as a psychotherapist – has articulated a view that the characters of public men and women should be subject to examination and revelation. This is because these interest the public and because, at a time when there are no deep differences in policies, the character of leaders is more important than their programmes.

That view is a rational one, in a politico-media space as tuned to scandal and personality as the British one now is. It will be very hard to do what Mr Brown said he wished to do when he took office – present an administration to which destructive tactics and spin would be foreign. There are, to be sure, significant lines to be drawn – which the prime minister is trying, once more, to convince the country that he can draw – between glitz and debasement. But these lines tend to melt under pressure and in the hands of those for whom winning is all.

john.lloyd@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/johnlloyd

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