Damian McBride scandal - details of smear campaign revealed
Details of emails which forced a senior aide to Gordon Brown to resign yesterday have emerged. Damian McBride sent a list of suggestions for scurrilous rumors attacking leading Conservatives to Labor blogger Derek Draper. The spin doctor suggested challenging David Cameron to deny that he has an "embarrassing illness" and spreading rumors about the mental health of George Osborne’s wife, Frances. Senior Tories demanded a public apology, while PM Gordon Brown said there was "no place in politics" for material of this sort. (Observer, Sunday Times)
Westminster isn't really shocked by McBride's poisonous emails
When Gordon Brown marched into Number 10 in June 2007 declaring he was ending the culture of spin that had tainted his predecessor's reign, you could hear the gasps of disbelief from hacks throughout Westminster -for the simple reason that he was bringing with him Damian McBride, the former Treasury official who had become one of his closest advisers.
The almost universal view in Westminster was that so long as 'McPoison' -as he was known to everyone - remained at the centre of government as Brown's head of strategy and planning, then spin was alive and kicking.
And it was also universally agreed that it would end in tears, just as it did with those other masters of black ops, Alastair Campbell and Charlie Whelan.
Sure enough, during his time in Downing Street, McBride engaged in precisely the tactics he was expected to engage in, not least by Gordon Brown who will have known what his "attack dog" was up to - at least the broad brush-strokes if not the fine detail.
That, after all, is what people like McBride are for. He bullied or rewarded journalists depending on their behavior and was not beyond turning his attention to ministers if they threatened his glorious leader, to whom he showed the sort of loyalty of which most bosses can only dream.
It was McBride who briefed journalists in a hotel bar at 3am during the September 2008 Labor party conference that Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly was quitting the government to spend more time with her family. Kelly was asleep in her hotel bed at the time: it was a classic and highly effective operation and McBride's masters were delighted that he spared them a more damaging story about Kelly's dissatisfaction with the government's direction.
Equally sure enough, it did end in tears when McBride broke the first rule of spinners - and got caught sending emails to Peter Mandelson's former aide, Derek Draper, outlining a campaign of personal smears against senior Tories. Once caught, he became the story and, under the second rule, had to go.
But McBride is not an aberration. All parties have their attack dogs and believe they should fight their opponents' fire with fire - it is just that no one can any longer remember who struck the first match. And they all have one thing in common: they guarantee their bosses' deniability.
Neither is there anything new about the dirty work being done by a civil servant rather than a party hack. Margaret Thatcher's press spokesman Bernard Ingham caused a stink about civil servants briefing against ministers two decades ago when he told lobby journalists, off the record, that John Biffen was a "semi-detached" member of the cabinet.
So it is disingenuous of Cabinet Office Minister Liam Byrne to attempt to play down this whole affair as a rather silly misjudgment and suggest the McBride emails were never intended for publication (even hinting it is the blogger who broke the story, Paul Staines aka Guido Fawkes, and the Sunday papers which published some of the detail who are really at fault).
There is a good reason why this specific incident happened. Labor has understandably become increasingly frustrated by the success of right wing and Tory-supporting bloggers, like Staines, Iain Dale and Tim Montgomerie's ConservativeHome. There have been attempts to beef up existing Labor-supporting blogs, like LaborHome, and launch new ones such as John Prescott's effort and the one at the centre of this affair, LaborList, run by Draper.
And it seems there were plans for a new, more robust blog, Red Rag, where gossip of the kind contained in the McBride emails might appear. Whether that blog is to be run by Draper, as suggested, or has been prematurely killed off, we shall see.