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.