McPoison. McPrickface. Mad Dog.
Gordon Brown's former press adviser, Damian McBride, has been called a lot of things over the years and, especially, in recent weeks.
These days, he happens to be head of media and PR for Cafod, the official Catholic aid agency for England and Wales. Oh, and he's also the author of 'Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin', which documents in the most minute detail how he briefed against Labour ministers, MPs and civil servants, destroying innocent lives and careers in the process - and which was serialised in the Daily Mail on the eve of Labour's recent party conference in Brighton.
McBride may be persona non grata in political circles but he meets me in the wood-panelled Club Room of the InterContinental Hotel in Westminster, not far from the pubs and bars where he once held court - spinning, briefing and plotting against 'enemies', both real and imagined, of his beloved Brown.
The drinking, in particular, has taken its toll. It is difficult to believe that the red-faced McBride, who is chomping on a ham-and-cheese sandwich as our interview kicks off, is only 39. (Two of my HuffPost UK colleagues refused to believe me when I mentioned his age to them.)
Given what the former spin doctor did, and what he has admitted to doing in his memoir, does he have trouble sleeping at night? “I think one of the benefits of being an alcoholic is that you tend to sleep very well. Probably too much. During the time I was doing the job I didn’t do enough of that self-reflection..”
I interrupt – but what about now? “I’d be exaggerating if I said its one of those things I’m constantly tormented by. I try as much as possible to live in the moment and think about how I’m treating people day to day. Am I treating my fellow human beings well? Am I treating my staff well at work?.. It's difficult for my friends now, and my new colleagues, to see that and reconcile that with what they’ve heard about in [my] past.”
What have his “new colleagues” at Cafod, where McBride has worked since 2011, made of his memoir and the sheer awfulness of his revelations? “Don’t know,” he says, reminding me that he has been promoting his book for the past week and hasn’t yet been back to his office. (Cafod, however, have announced that they are considering "fully the implications which have arisen from the serialisation and … are carefully considering any appropriate action" against their head of press.)
“Their standard question [to me]: ‘Is how come you used to act like that?’” says McBride. It’s a good question, I say. Why did he act like that? How did he become such a "nasty bastard", as he himself concedes he was in 'Power Trip'? Was he perhaps bullied as a child?
“I certainly wasn’t bullied by other children. I don’t massively want to go into my childhood.”
There’s a pause. He looks away.
“I had a quite isolated childhood. I tended to isolate myself, at least in my home life.”
I can’t help but note that he doesn’t deny being bullied, only that he wasn’t bullied “by other children”. Who was he bullied by then?
He dismisses my question. “I’m not going to get into my childhood.” There’s another long pause. “I think it’s.. I would say the only thing I’d conclude which fits with what you’re trying to understand about this is that I didn’t grow up with a great deal of empathy for other people, for what they were going through, I was mainly concerned about myself and isolated myself from other people.”
McBride says he grew up without 'a great deal of empathy of other people'
Would he accept that his behaviour at the Treasury and in Downing Street itself constituted bullying?
“Yeah, I think that whole notion of wanting to show to people why they shouldn’t stand up to you, as I described with the Ivan Lewis situation.. there was always a very distinct [bullying] element in all those activities.”
McBride admits in his book that he was the source of a nasty News of the World splash on the then health minister Ivan Lewis in 2008, based on the latter's "supposed pestering of a young civil servant who used to work in his private office". "And all just so I could show Ivan I could piss higher up the wall than him," writes the former Brown spinner.
He says he would say "sorry" now to Lewis for his past (mis)behaviour and describes his own changed and repentant mindset as a “four-year process not of internal analysis, or self-analysis, but having to explain myself to other people… people who were outside politics”.
Is it all in the past? The briefings? The bullying? The pissing up the wall?
He nods. “Yeah, I do regard that as being a passage of my life that I look back on,” he says, in a quiet voice. For much of the interview, he tends not to make eye contact.
I persist - isn’t it hard to unlearn such habits? All of us have difficulties keeping texts or emails to ourselves; all of us are tempted to forward on bits of gossip from one friend or colleague to another. Isn’t he?
“Part of me, because I’ve seen where that can lead, almost instinctively shies away from it,” he replies. “I’ll have conversations with people and say, ‘Oh don’t tell me that.’ I’ll deliberately exclude myself from lots of things.”
McBride is a Catholic, a believer in God and divine justice. Does he worry that he’ll go to hell for what he did during his time in government?
“I’ve always thought that whenever the time comes, it’s about where you are at that point in your relationship to God and your relationship to other people, and what’s in your soul at that moment, but also whether you’ve made your peace with other people.”
Has the book helped him make peace with others? I point out that the likes of Douglas Alexander and Ivan Lewis don’t seem too pleased with him – or very forgiving.
“Part of the book, even though it’s not personally talking to other people, is about admitting what I’ve done wrong and how I’ve damaged people. And I’ve had people who I’d have formerly regarded as enemies in the Labour Party saying to me, ‘If you don’t admit the damage you did to people’s lives.. then this book will have no credibility.’”
McBride is reported to have earned £130,000 from the serialisation deal with the Daily Mail. If he's so sorry for what he did while working for Brown, why make any money out of it? Why not give away the Mail's cash? To charity? Or to the Labour Party?
“I’m obviously giving away a good proportion that comes out of it because I’ve given away the royalties.”
But why not the serialisation money, too? In his interview with BBC2's Newsnight, McBride said he had left his job with nothing and suggested that the money from the book would help him pay off the debts he had built up over the past four years.
“Neither you nor anyone else knows where that money will go," McBride tells me in a matter-of-fact tone. "When I talk about repaying debts, I’m not talking about banks and that kind of thing, I’m talking about the people that stood by and helped me when I was in need."
He leans forward in his seat. "People that offered to live in my flat for two months, [who would] pay the mortgage not me, so that I could hold onto the flat and wouldn’t have to sell it. And those were not rich people, they did what they could because they were friends of mine. And when I talk about repaying those debts I’m not just talking about me keeping a ledger where I know exactly how much I owe people, I’m talking about the support I can give people who supported me.”
BLAIRITES VS BROWNITES
Most people tended not to support him, of course, especially members of the Blairite wing of the Labour Party - politicians such as Lewis and Tessa Jowell, as well as former spinners such as Alastair Campbell. They’ve been keen to use McBride’s book as evidence for their argument that the Brownites behaved worse than the Blairites during Labour's 13 years in office. That’s true, isn’t it?
Tessa Jowell has been one of the most vocal critics of Damian McBride's behaviour
McBride doesn’t buy it. “I always thought there were two entirely different types of operations. This was brought out by the Ben Wegg-Prosser emails. If you are effectively using Alan Milburn, Charles Clarke, Stephen Byers [and] you are sending those people into TV studios to personally attack Gordon Brown on a regular basis, I don’t see that as hugely different from me, operating in the shadows, not going into TV studio to do it, but feeding information to the Telegraph or the Mail…”
But wouldn’t they say that they weren’t using people’s private lives as ammunition, as McBride was?
He looks defiant for the first time in the interview. “For the most part that wasn’t what I did,” is his response.
The fact is, I tell him, that, thanks to his book, the Blairites now look whiter than white while the Brownites come across as vicious and childish bullies.
“It’s only because there is a misunderstanding about their tactics,” he says with a shrug. “If I say they were doing the same thing, they’ll say, ‘Well we never did the things you admit to here, we were never leaking stories about what other government departments were planning to do. But what I’d say is that [they] were commissioning private polling about Gordon’s image problem and then leaking it to the Mail on Sunday… So I don’t see those two things as being very different. One person’s leaking private polling, the other person is leaking government plans.”
As he seems to be in a noticeably less contrite mood, I decide to ask him if he thinks he behaved worse than Blair’s spinner-in-chief, Alastair Campbell.
McBride doesn’t hide his dislike of Campbell. “I think it depends on the scale of the crime. I think that the reason Alastair has got that reputation, for right or wrong, is because of the perception that he played a crucial role in taking the country into an illegal war and playing a personal role in the pressure that was put on David Kelly.”
But does he see Campbell's tactics and behaviour, on behalf of Blair, as being on a par with his own, on behalf of Brown?
“I think in the eyes of the public, if you ask in five years ‘do you still remember the spin stuff that took us into the Iraq war and resulted in the death of David Kelly?’, people will,” he says, before quickly adding: “If you ask them in five years, do you remember a single thing about this book, or the impact that it had, or do you know who Ivan Lewis is, no one will.”
He continues: “In the eyes of the Labour Party, I am sure Alastair Campbell will still be hosting fundraising dinners in two years and will be considered for [parliamentary] seats such as Burnley.”
Given the wholly negative response to his book from the party high command, as well as Labour activists and delegates at the recent conference in Brighton, does he think that’s unfair? Has he been given a rougher ride than Campbell?
“[Alastair] has done a very good job over the years making himself the person who has always served Labour governments loyally…. What I always find interesting about him, when you see him on [Sky One’s] ‘In A League Of Their Own’, [is that] there must be a proportion of the public sitting there thinking, ‘What on earth are you doing on here when we still have bombs going off in Sadr City?’”
A LOAD OF BALLS
I turn the topic of conversation from Blairites to Brownites. Can he credibly claim that his former boss Gordon Brown and his former friend and one-time ally Ed Balls didn’t have a clue about his toxic briefings against Labour ministers? That they weren’t involved in any way whatsoever?
He shrugs. “I don’t know what specific story would be attributed to Ed Balls.”
So Balls didn’t brief against Blair or any of the former PM’s allies or aides, directly or indirectly?
“I don’t think Ed Balls ever did that.. It’s not his style. Where Ed Balls was in those margins was in the great debates over [joining the Euro]… that was all pretty fierce stuff. And a lot of people did internecine stuff then that they probably regret. But I wasn’t there. It was before my time.”
So Brown never told him to plant a story about a rival or enemy in the papers?
McBride doesn’t blink: “Not once.”
Loyalist McBride defends his former colleagues, Brown and Balls, on the issue of hostile briefings
How does he reconcile his answer with the rather revealing section of the book that deals with the now-notorious David Miliband article in the Guardian, in the summer of 2008, which was spun by the Brownites – chief among them, McBride himself – as a leadership challenge to Prime Minister Brown? In ‘Power Trip’, McBride writes: "Gordon himself was as equivocal as the advice he was getting, saying things like ‘Don’t go too heavy’, which suggested a relaxed response, but then ‘Put him in a position where he’s got to come out and clarify what he meant’, which suggested ramping the pressure up a bit."
He shakes his head, as I read out the quote to him. All Brown was saying, his former press adviser tells me, is that David Miliband "needs to explain whether this is [a leadership bid] or not. I would just be saying to journalists that 'We have nothing to say about this. You need to ask David Miliband'.. That is not a briefing. What I say [in the book] is that I went further than that, which was to say to people, ‘This is it…. We’re all getting ready, this is David doing his coup.’”
McBride claims he would keep Brown in the dark about his briefing activities either by telling the then PM that negative stories about him had just “gone away”, as if by magic, or, he tells me, “I would say: ‘Don’t ask.’” (Or as he puts it in his book: "The unspoken word was from me to him, and said: ‘Don’t question my methods.’")
'A GREAT PRIME MINISTER'
As a former head of press for a Labour Party leader, what’s McBride’s advice to the current Labour leader? On a personal front, Ed Miliband, like Gordon Brown, has pretty dire poll ratings. “I would say that the most important thing he needs to do is to hold his nerve in the run up to 2015,” says McBride. “Given that he’s deliberately underexposed himself – almost the opposite of what Cameron did when he took over in 2005 – what [Ed] should say is that this has all been part of a long game and, six months before the [general] election he reveals himself.”
But what about Miliband’s current image problem? “He doesn’t have an image as far as the public is concerned," he replies, before adding: "That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
Ed Miliband 'doesn't have an image as far as the public is concerned,' says McBride
For McBride, “the British public will start to pay attention and take notice [of Miliband] six months before the election”. He cites the example of Nick Clegg, the 2010 TV leaders’ debates and the resulting ‘Cleggmania’.
In the run-up to the May 2015 election, Miliband, explains the former Brown aide, “will be billed as ‘this man who could be Britain’s next prime minister’. That gets you on Piers Morgan’s ‘Life Stories’ and profiles on News at Ten, as we found with Gordon, and that’s the time you’ve got to make it work.”
With Brown, of course, it didn’t work. McBride had quit Downing Street over the ‘Red Rag’ scandal a year before the 2010 election, which saw Brown hand over the keys to Number 10 to David Cameron.
I’m intrigued as to how McBride would try and neutralize Cameron if he was working for Ed Miliband now. “I’d just be saying: ‘Do you want another five years of this guy?’ The biggest problem Cameron has got by the time he gets to the next election is that it will be ten years since he’s been in the public spotlight. Brown never survived that kind of length of time; Blair was gone by his tenth year in charge; Thatcher survived slightly longer.” McBride says Brown’s private view was that a leader could only survive, at the top of his or her game, for “about six or seven years”.
“I think the Conservatives are making a mistake, because I think there is sort of ennui setting in about Cameron and his public appearances.. the thing is that I don’t think anyone who has not yet made up their mind about Cameron.. is going to think, ‘Actually I like that guy.’”
McBride befriended Miliband when the two men worked for Brown at the Treasury in 2004 and 2005 – indeed, in his memoir, the former Brown aide claims he was closer to Miliband than to Balls. Miliband, however, fell out with McBride in 2007, over the ‘election that never was’, and the latter details in 'Power Trip' how the Labour leader accused him of briefing against him – and then lying about it.
It’s a charge that McBride denies in the book, and in person, but he still seems to like Miliband. “He has the potential to be a great prime minister,” he tells me, before adding: “It will be difficult for Labour to get an outright majority just because of the electoral maths and because people are now more used to coalition governments”
Some might say McBride’s seal of approval is the last thing Miliband needs; other, more cynical types might point out that McBride calls Gordon Brown "the greatest man I ever met" - and yet few would deem Brown to have been a “great” prime minister.
Over the past week, the former PM has been chased around by journalists, demanding answers to their questions about what he knew of McBride's activities. I ask his former head of press what he would say to his former boss if Brown rang up him to ask him why he had written this tell-all book.
“I’d say, 'Sorry you feel that way - but read the book.'”