I really like Iain Dale, and believe the Tories missed a trick when he tried and failed to become an MP for them. He would have been a good MP, and perhaps a good minister.
But he has fulfilled an important political function outside Parliament in building up a successful publishing and media company which is driven very much by his passion for politics and his insight that politics matters and its constant denigration in the media and public mind is a bad thing.
So in my criticisms of former Gordon Brown aide Damian McBride’s book, none of them are directed at Iain. He is a publisher, not a politician and I can totally understand why he bought that book, and published it in the conference season. I would not have sold it to the Mail, because I would not sell my dysentery to the sociopathic liar and politics-poisoner that is Paul Dacre, but I understand why, as a publisher knowing how few papers pay for books these days, he did. I also understand why he wants to defend the book. However, given Dale is basically a good man, I don’t know why he feels he has to defend McBride the man, who is not, as his own pen now confirms. And as Iain has asked me on his blog and elsewhere quite why I feel so angry about McBride, here is the answer.
Remember what my position was – Number 10 director of communications and strategy and the Prime Minister’s spokesman and press secretary. One of the reasons Tony Blair wanted me to do that job is because he knew I was a team player. In opposition, the team was Labour. In government, it was the government. I built systems and structures for the new media age on the principle of ‘maximum openness for maximum trust.’ I worked not just for Tony, but for John Prescott, Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam, whoever needed the support of the centre at the time knew they could get it because at the centre we were a team working for the bigger team. I developed ideas like the grid, still used by David Cameron, so that at a glance we could all know what was going on, who was supposed to be doing what. My morning meetings were open house to key departments likely to be in the news. My notes and memos were circulated around the entire government.
As my diaries show – and Iain, I think the real comparison on sales will be with The Blair Years, the second best selling book of the Blair era (Tony’s is first), not the full volumes which are aimed as much at students and historians as general readers – the one part of the operation that consistently made this approach difficult was Gordon’s Treasury. Gordon and I actually got on pretty well most of the time, even in the bad times, because I thought it was vital to keep channels open even when the papers were full of bile about TB and others that we knew was coming from his people. He would usually deny it, unconvincingly. There were various points when I refused to let his special advisers attend my meetings, and once McBride moved from being a ‘civil servant’ (a position he disgraced) to a political aide, I knew enough about him to make clear he could not come to any meeting I chaired, and I never exchanged a word with him thereafter, and never have. The systems that we developed for the whole government were being used by people like him for their own malign operations against members of the government. That, in my book, is criminal.
And my central point is one that I make in a book on the peace process, The Irish Diaries, that I am bringing out next month – that when, as in Northern Ireland, teamship drives the operation, it has a better chance of success, even in the most challenging circumstances. When members of the same team are trying to injure each other, the team fails. I make the analogy with football. I accept I am obsessed with sport, but it is partly because you can learn so much for politics, charity, business, anything, from seeing how good sports teams operate. Imagine a Barcelona where Xavi refuses to pass to Iniesta, and Fabregas will not make runs for Messi. Yet that is what we had at times, and I was the one usually picking up the pieces as the GB ballboys and kitmen – McBride, Charlie Whelan, etc – were charging onto the pitch hacking down our own star players when the floodlights went off. And what happened in the end? The first team broke up, and Tony left despite winning three elections on the trot, and then the second team lost, because the public didn’t rate them as highly as they used to rate the first one, and had had enough of us, and even though we managed to stop the other team getting a clear win, David Cameron is Prime Minister, screwing up the recovery, screwing up the NHS, destroying the lives of the poorest in Britain, attacking and blaming anyone but himself, foreign policy a shambles.
I honestly believe – and I know that this is a big if given how politics and politicians are – that if the big beasts of New Labour had all more or less stuck together, if Gordon had understood the value of the broader team and not just his own, if some of his darker people had been sacked early – or better still never been near the place – there is a chance we would still be there and this wretched coalition government would not be undoing so much of the good that Tony, Gordon and their colleagues did. That is the real crime of the horrible, nasty, vindictive politics and internal backstabbing that McBride, after all the years of GB denials,now admits to, so forgive me if I refuse to bow down before this attempt at Catholic redemption.
Iain said he was ‘disappointed’ that I removed material damaging to GB from The Blair Years. But I was open about doing so, and promised to publish the full diaries when he left office, which I have done. I feel the principles of teamship apply when you are in the team, and after you have moved on. Which is why my books remain one of Labour’s regular fundraisers and why I have raised well over six figures for the party from various sales and auctions of special editions.
And yes, I will admit that it annoys me the way that the sociopathic Dacre, and others in the media, try to present some kind of equivalence between the behaviour McBride and Whelan et al got up to, and the operation I ran from Number 10. When I call people like Dacre a liar, it is partly because they state without any evidence whatever that I briefed against ministers in the way these GB clowns did. I have accepted – and admitted in my diaries – on one occasion going over the top against Gordon, when his people were being particularly vile. I sometimes lost it with ministers when maybe I shouldn’t. But to their face, not to the press. I just didn’t do it, because I was part of a team.
The political journalists know that and knew that now but that was not ‘the story.’ Far better to have a story that said everyone was as bad as each other. Six of one half a dozen of the other. McBride exposes that lie once and for all. It was, and this is generous, eleven of one and one of the other. I was grateful to Sky’s Adam Boulton, who is not my biggest fan, for at least making the point that I did not indulge in the kind of thing McBride admitted to, and that I always sought to communicate a positive agenda for the government and focus on policy, not who’s up who’s down. What McBride has shown is that he was running a huge briefing operation against government ministers and civil servants – even the bloody secretaries for God’s sake – through smears, lies, leaks and theft. Often while drunk. There was one part of Downing Street – TB’s – trying to run the government and another – GB’s – trying to undermine it at every opportunity, no matter what the ethics, no matter what the cost to the government and the country.
So there you go, Iain. That explains why I think this matters, and why it makes me angry that someone who did so much damage to a good government and good ministers when he was there, thinks nothing of doing fresh damage to Labour under Ed Miliband now. And to those trying to say Ed must have known this was going on, he certainly did, because he complained about it, and asked my help in trying to deal with it. So did former Treasury Permanent Secretary and Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell who like me did not want McBride near the place – I made it a condition of returning to help Gordon in the last election that McBride and Whelan were not involved.
So McBride is having his fifteen minutes of fame. He and the book will be forgotten fairly quickly, and the caravan will move on. But the poison he sets out on those pages is one of the reasons we have David Cameron not Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or any other Labour figure in Downing Street. And ultimately Gordon, whose record as Chancellor and handling of the crash I will always defend, must take responsibility for that. He was a great Chancellor with a weakness for very bad people whose idea of political teamship was fundamentally at odds with Tony’s, mine, and the one that Gordon professed to sharing.
*** Thanks for ‘get well’ messages re dysentery. You can see the new, thinner, wanner me, talking about Labour, McBride, my novel on alcoholism, and the campaign I will be launching for Alcohol Concern tomorrow, on Andrew Neil’S Sunday Politics from 11am. I think I am on late.