Book: Power Trip
By Damian McBride
Biteback Publishing, £20
The former prime ministerial press secretaries Bernard Ingham and Alastair Campbell weren’t strangers to the dark political arts, but Damian McBride – Gordon Brown’s press secretary – has perhaps more opprobrium than any of his predecessors. His memoir, Power Trip, has just been released, and provides some of the reasons why.
Unlike many of those who came before him, McBride was a civil service insider – rising through the Customs & Excise Fast Stream to work for Brown, first at the Treasury and then in No10. But he is critical of the mechanism from which he benefited: “At no point in that whole Fast Stream recruitment process were my violent competitive streak, excess drinking, duplicitous instincts, preference for football over work, fervent Irish nationalism or even my rampant homogeneity with every other person on the scheme exposed as potentially good reasons not to appoint me.”
Describing the civil service as “the last great closed shop in all the British professions”, he says that he was largely accepted because he came from a good school in an affluent area and had been to Cambridge. His recommendation for reforming the system, perhaps unlikely to be adopted by his former bosses, would involve opening up the recruitment process to any young person in the country, regardless of their qualifications. “It would put creativity, thoughtfulness and common sense at the heart of Fast Stream recruitment,” he believes.
Thoughtfulness and common sense were attributes McBride clearly lacked. But his creativity in devising methods to protect Brown are described in detail. Much of his skullduggery, he claims, was dodgy rather than dirty. McBride leaked bad stories in order to keep worse ones off the front pages. He devised the plan to invite Margaret Thatcher to Downing Street so as to embarrass David Cameron.
But McBride jumped into the gutter a number of times. In 2008, junior health minister Ivan Lewis objected to a rebuke from Brown’s lieutenant, after he spoke out on a tax issue. The following weekend, following a call from McBride, the News of the World splashed a story about his supposed pestering of a young civil servant from his private office. McBride’s final downfall came when he tried to tout fictional, sleazy stories about senior Tories to tabloid papers.
McBride almost succeeds in convincing the reader of his regret and contrition about these incidents. But there is still a streak of self-justification underlying much of the book, which undermines it as a confessional. His description of the boozy culture at the top of politics may well be accurate, but at points McBride stretches credulity by presenting himself as a hapless victim. “I can barely remember anyone in my entire time in the civil service or politics taking me to one side and telling me to take it easy,” he says. Perhaps so. But if people voluntarily do awful and despicable things then the responsibility for that is, in the end, theirs alone.
Review by Colin Marrs