Short Cuts

David Runciman

Dominic Lawson, writing in the Mail, thinks the way to understand Damian McBride’s relationship to Gordon Brown is by analogy with the Third Reich. McBride didn’t need to take direct orders from his boss because he already understood the violence that Brown wished on his enemies. The underling was working towards the Führer. Alastair Campbell, speaking on Andrew Neil’s Daily Politics, thinks the proper analogy is with football. McBride was a rogue player so set on mindless aggression that he fouled people all over the pitch. He was like a footballer who was happy to kick his own teammates.

I’m with Campbell. Sports analogies are always preferable to Nazi ones. In his memoir, Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin (Biteback, £20), McBride says that he learned his political style on the playing fields of Cambridge, where he was captain of the Peterhouse football team and quickly earned a reputation as the dirtiest player around. He didn’t just take it out on the opposition. He saw the football pitch as the perfect place to pursue personal vendettas and settle scores. But as McBride made his sorry round of the TV studios to plug his book during the Labour Party Conference, it was a different sort of footballer he reminded me of. The person he brought to mind was Paul Gascoigne, someone he closely resembles.

Like McBride, Gascoigne has done his share of tours of the daytime TV sofas recently to provide penitent but unabashed accounts of his past behaviour. The two men have similar faces, once boyish, now damaged (though Gascoigne’s has become much thinner). Both have the same gaze, intermittently penetrating and evasive. Both of them show the ravages of alcoholism.

In his book McBride describes his drinking regime as follows: two pints at lunchtime, two hours in the pub after work, back to the Treasury with a six-pack for three more hours at his computer, a drink on the way home, then four on the sofa until he fell asleep. That was when he was a relatively junior civil servant. Once he became Brown’s chief press adviser he says the drinking got worse, a constant round of lager and white wine, ‘usually at the same time’. Then during the summer and Christmas party seasons he would really let himself go. He mentions all this in a single early chapter entitled ‘The Demon Booze’, but it provides the subtext for much of what follows. His story is full of hair-raising escapades and exhausting binges. He seems fuelled by a mix of aggression and anxiety. His behaviour is deeply erratic and often unprofessional. Sometimes it borders on the criminal. He is a dangerous person to be around.

Why did no one try to stop him or to help him? McBride says it was because his lifestyle was far from unusual at Westminster, where it was shared by many politicians, special advisers and, above all, journalists. No one wanted to call him on it for fear of calling time on their own habits. He was indulged in the same way Gascoigne was in the world of football: by fellow drinkers who were happy to let him do long-term damage to himself so long as he kept performing when they needed him. It is striking that some of McBride’s most venomous feuds were with men who had once been part of that drinking culture but had gone sober. One was Campbell. Another was John Reid, who gave up drink in 1994 after having acquired a reputation as a serious boozer. McBride effectively finished Reid’s political career in 2007 when he fed poison about Reid’s past to the papers.

But why did Brown tolerate it? Even McBride seems puzzled about this. Brown was not a huge drinker himself. He could put it away when he had to but for the most part he showed great restraint, never drinking much when there was work to be done. He prided himself on his political discipline and loathed unnecessary mistakes. Yet he put his reputation in the hands of a man like McBride. It is the unresolved mystery at the heart of the story.

McBride claims it was because he was good at his job. He compares himself to Andy Coulson, whose time with David Cameron coincided with the most successful phase of Cameron’s leadership. This is bravado. McBride’s performance was too full of cock-ups and drunken mishaps to serve as a model of cut-throat professionalism. He admits that Brown would forgive him anything – including the drinking and the mishaps – so long as he always knew what would appear in the Sunday papers.

The strong impression this book conveys is that Brown was forever running scared. McBride hints at dark secrets. He says that Brown and Blair each had information on the other so toxic that they were bound together by a pact of Mutually Assured Destruction. He recounts being repeatedly told that Brown needed his protection. From what? His portrayal of Brown reveals a pattern of deeply anxious behaviour. Brown would overprepare for Prime Minister’s Questions, taking days out of his schedule to bury himself in brutal rehearsals that only made his performance worse. He invited abuse, even though it always provoked him. He was barely able to raise a smile at good news. The smallest piece of bad news could plunge him into despair.

Brown’s personality is the great black hole at the heart of recent British political history. It seems unfathomable. The version given by McBride doesn’t make him appear sinister so much as deeply elusive and strange. His neurotic and haphazard decision-making remains very hard to understand, especially as it was so often at odds with his obvious political intelligence. This is most apparent in the mistake that marred his entire premiership. McBride’s account of the process that led Brown to float and then abandon a snap election in autumn 2007 is emblematic of the whole peculiar tale.

McBride screwed up the logistics, as he freely admits. Once the fateful decision had been made, he mismanaged the press, blowing the timing of the ghastly interview Brown gave to Andrew Marr to explain his reasoning. McBride antagonised the broadcasters and misadvised his boss. Still, he was as puzzled as anyone as to what Brown had been doing. Having taken his troops so far up the hill there was no choice but to keep going. Yet Brown allowed himself to be persuaded down again by fantastical arguments, including the ludicrous idea that if he won by a smaller majority than Blair in 2005 he would have to resign. Brown seemed obsessed by phantom terrors while oblivious to the real dangers he was running. He agreed with those who said that the worst reason to call an election was simply because it would look terrible if it was called off. As McBride says, what better reason was there?

McBride describes the meeting when the final decision was made. By now Ed Balls, to his credit, was the only one still pushing for Brown to go all in. He thought Cameron and Osborne had more reason to be frightened of Brown than he did of them. As Balls had told Brown the previous week, ‘These guys are amateurs. They’ve never fought a general election – they don’t know what it takes. We’ll just say: “Are you really going to trust this pair of jokers to run the country?”’ But Brown was no longer listening. He was passive and resigned. Finally, the veteran US political consultant Bob Shrum gave him the most inappropriate advice imaginable. ‘Well, if the worst comes to the worst, and you only get three years, there’s a lot you can do in three years. Jack Kennedy only had three years.’ And, as McBride reports, ‘That was that.’ It would all be tragic if it weren’t so weird.