When the Damian McBride scandal blew up, Ed Balls was quick to distance himself from his former colleague saying he spoke to ‘Mr McBride’ once or twice and had dealings with him when they worked in Treasury but had not had much contact since. I remember Ben Brogan (then at the Mail) blogging: ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire’ (they have taken his blog down since). It summed up the reaction of most at Westminster. The widespread assumption was that Damian McBride and Ed Balls were key members of a close-knit group of people (eight of them, I later found out) around Gordon Brown.
McBride is a guest in this week’s Spectator podcast, and I asked him about Balls. His account is difficult to reconcile with Ed Balls’s ‘Damian who?’ approach to all this”
‘So what I mean is, I became Head of Communications at the Treasury in September 2003, he was gone by mid-2004, so we had that quite short period until he became an MP when we were working very closely together. Then when he had his own department, I’d say I was at that stage maybe speaking to him once a week, and we would have a sort of wrap-up of what he was doing in his own department, and that kind of thing, particularly when he was under pressure on particular issues. And then he would say, ‘How’s everything over there?’, and that was kind of the nature of the discussion.’
So McBride at the Treasury would have weekly discussions with Ed Balls, who was then Schools Secretary. I wonder how many other Cabinet members had weekly discussions with special advisers from other departments?
I also ask him if Balls sent him on any ‘black ops’. He replied that, if Balls would blurt something out to journalists at a lunch, he’d ask McBride to persuade them not to run it (usually by offering another story in exchange). As McBride says in his book, this is how it worked: McBride would gather intelligence from his position inside government, give it to a group of journalists from whom he would call in favours. And if this meant briefing against Labour colleagues, well, so be it.
I’m midway through McBride’s book: it’s brilliant. In a kind of horrific way. No matter how bad you thought things were then, he’ll convince you that they were much worse. And of that group, only Ed Balls is still at large. No wonder he’s so keen to distance himself from the man whose opinion and services he seemed to rely on so much.
Anyway, here’s the podcast – the Balls bit is 21 mins in. You can subscribe to the View from 22 through iTunes and have it delivered to your computer every week, or you can use the embedded player below: