12 March 2013

Damian McBride’s “100 or so”

Damian McBride was a Whitehall civil servant who became Head of Communications at the UK Treasury and then, from 2005 until he resigned in April 2009, was special adviser to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He is now Head of Communications at the Catholic aid agency CAFOD and recently appeared as a witness before the House of Commons Public Administration Committee examining The Future of the Civil Service. McBride posts on his blog every few weeks on topics relating to his experience in government.

His most recent post, Going To The Mattresses: the art of surviving a coup, concerns the various ways a Prime Minister whose position is under threat can foil his colleagues’ attempts to oust him:
… if they [No10] want to know what it takes to get through an attemped coup, they could do worse than study the record of Gordon Brown – the Charles De Gaulle of Downing Street when it came to surviving assassination attempts. Based on the Brown survival manual, I would ask them the following five key questions …
For the full questions and answers see McBride’s post! But here is one gem:
With David Miliband’s various abortive coups, there was a certain crude art to inducing their failure. I was often personally criticised for over-reacting to some new Miliband manoeuvre, ‘ramping it up’ as people would say. But given David’s tendency to treat rebellion like a reluctant bather inching his way into the sea at Skegness, it made sense to push him right in at the outset, on the grounds that he’d run straight back to his towel, and not try again for at least six months.
I thought the answer to one question gives some insight into the way people at No10, at least in Brown’s day, see the world
4. How’s your relationship with the media these days?  
As I’ve said, momentum is everything in an attempted coup: to succeed, the plotters must keep pushing the leader towards the cliff. The media are crucial in determining that momentum: if they say it’s fizzled out, then it has; if they say one more bad day will make the leader’s position untenable, then it will. But, even for the BBC, this is not an objective, scientific process; it’s about 100 or so very influential people at different media outlets forming a view based on their conversations with each other and with key players on either side of the plot, as well as, to some extent, on public attitudes. That is why, no matter how bad the coverage of Gordon Brown’s Premiership became, it was still vital for us to maintain strong and friendly relationships with those 100 or so people.
So who are these “100 or so” (my emphases above)? I doubt if anyone, including McBride, has ever had a definitive list while at the same time there are probably a couple of hundred who would like to think themselves as being on one. As for the comment “even for the BBC”, here is an extract from the Pollard Review into the way BBC2 Newsnight handled the Savile story:
43. In addition to the overall structure of the BBC, it is also helpful to provide some background as to the structure of the BBC News Group, and the relevant reporting lines within this group.  
44. The head of the News Group is the Director of News. Throughout the period considered by this Review, this was Helen Boaden.  
45. … in November 2011 .... Ms Boaden’s reporting line was vertical – to the Director General. The Director General’s own reporting line is to the BBC Trust and its Chairman Lord Patten.  
46. Beneath the Director of News sits a Deputy Director of News. Throughout the period considered by this Review, this was Stephen Mitchell. Mr Mitchell is also Head of News Programmes. As Deputy Director of News, Mr Mitchell reports to Ms Boaden and is, in that role, involved in dealing with a range of strategic issues affecting the whole of BBC News. As Head of News Programmes, he is responsible for a wide range of national radio and television news and current affairs programmes, including Newsnight and Panorama.  
47. Beneath Mr Mitchell sit the editors of the news programmes. Thus Mr Mitchell is the line manager of Peter Rippon, the editor of Newsnight (who stepped aside from his post in October 2012). There was thus a direct reporting line from Mr Rippon to Mr Mitchell (and then in turn from Mr Mitchell to Ms Boaden).  
48. Beneath the editors are their deputy editors. Mr Rippon’s deputies in late 2011 were Liz Gibbons and Shaminder Nahal. They reported to Mr Rippon, whose own reporting line went to Mr Mitchell (and so on) as set out above.  
49. Beneath the deputy editors are the programme presenters, reporters, and journalists, such as Jeremy Paxman, Meirion Jones and Liz MacKean.
Leaving the BBC teams aside (11 in the above alone) it is possible to start guessing who some of the “100 or so” might be. A quick scan of the Labels used just on this blog since October 2010 comes up with:
Alice Thompson, Andrew Marr, Andrew Rawnsley, Benedict Brogan, Charles Moore, David Aaronovitch, Fraser Nelson, George Parker, Guido Fawkes (Paul Staines), Iain Martin, Isabel Oakeshott, Janan Ganesh, Jim Naughtie, John Rentoul, Lionel Barber, Mary Anne Sieghart, Patrick Wintour, Peter Oborne, Polly Toynbee, Rachel Sylvester, Sarah Sands, Simon Jenkins, Tim Montgomerie, Toby Young.
Another 76 or so to go then, and of course, not all the names would be common to Tory, Labour or Lib Dem lists of “100 or so”.

One of the above, Andrew Rawnsley, explains in Chapter 37 (Chamber of Horrors) of his The End of the Party the circumstances (the contents of some emails obtained by Guido Fawkes, also above) which led to McBride’s resignation from Brown’s team, and casts some light on his modus operandi:
… McBride had been Brown's chief propagandist for six years. He was also extremely tight with Ed Balls, closer some thought than he was to the Prime Minister. Balls, knowing that he would be spattered by association, raged at his friend: 'I can't believe you have been so f[xxx] stupid.  
The more scrupulous members of Brown's staff had long been horrified by what they saw of McBride at work. His modus operandi was to offer 'trades' to journalists who boosted Brown or killed stories that Number 10 didn't want published. Brown had ignored repeated warnings … to get rid of him. McBride was not a lone wolf; he was one razor-toothed but sloppy dog in the Brown pack with a licence from the Prime Minister.  
The e-mails were an extreme example of the macho and nasty tactics that had been employed on Brown's behalf by members of his cabal for many years. McBride operated in the dark side of Downing Street which was an expression of the dark side of Brown's personality. …(page 638)
Alistair Darling in Back from the Brink describes the aftermath of giving a bleak account of the UK’s economic prospects at odds with Brown’s views, to the Guardian:
… It was the briefing machine at No. 10 and Gordon's attack dogs, who fed the story and kept it running. I later described it as like 'the forces of hell' being unleashed on me. That's what it felt like. Damian McBride was no fan of mine - he clearly disapproved of Gordon's decision to appoint me as Chancellor. He used to look at me like the butler who resented the fact that his master had married someone he didn't approve of. I'm not sure that he ever spoke to me. He would give me a curt nod, nothing more. He had a group of journalists whom he briefed regularly, and when Catherine Mcleod [Darling’s Special Adviser] finally managed to meet with him, after repeated requests, he told her which journalists she should talk to and which not.  
… The attack dogs set about another colleague that summer. At the beginning of the summer recess, after the loss of the Glasgow East seat, David Miliband, then Foreign Secretary, had written an article for the Guardian in which he set out the need for a coherent political strategy to recover lost ground. It was a thoughtful piece, but it was interpreted by the inner circle as an attack on Gordon and a signal that David might launch a leadership attempt. Gordon was told by his team left behind at No. 10 that he should be relaxed about it. They were right. The article would have died a death had a cack-handed press operation not been mounted to trash David. (pages 106/7)
Darling also describes the emails which led to McBride’s resignation as:
… an all too predictable political catastrophe in No. 10, this time involving one of Gordon s spin doctors. Throughout his time in government, Gordon had relied heavily on these attack dogs, first Charlie Whelan, then Damian McBride. McBride had been caught out briefing against deputy leader Harriet Harman at party conference in October 2008 - by Harriet herself, who had overheard him. Rightly, she threatened to report him to the Cabinet Secretary unless Gordon did something about him. He promised to move McBride to where he could cause less trouble. It was to no avail. McBride's briefings against me to senior journalists and political editors were faithfully reported back. Gordon refused all entreaties by cabinet colleagues to let him go and tethered him instead in an office in No. 10. It was another flawed fix, and he continued to roam.  
Things finally came to a head when emails were published showing that McBride was involved in a shabby exercise to damage opposition figures and, in one case, the wife of a shadow minister. This time he had to go. Unfortunately, the disgrace did not leave with him. The repercussions for Gordon were disastrous. People had daily questioned our competence and our ability to control events. Now they had confirmation of what they suspected: we were a nasty party too. The perception was that our moral compass had irremediably lost its bearings. The McBride affair further destabilized the whole No. 10 operation.
In his post McBride mentions one of my Labels above:
If that instinct for survival – and everything that goes with it – is lacking in No10 at present, then it may point to a wider problem; with apologies to John Rentoul’s Banned List, something of an existential crisis.
who tweeted just after the post appeared:

I was surprised that the überpedant Rentoul should describe it as beautifully written. There were three howlers that even I could spot:

consiligieres instead of consiglieri
Charles De Gaulle instead of Charles de Gaulle
and “about 100 or so” is a redundancy.

But I may well make use of the “100 or so” label in future posts.


  1. Perhaps, not expecting Western Independent's high standards in Damian McBride's blog, John Rentoul also pardoned two unnecessary hyphens, in the phrases "symbolically-important groups" and "suitably-devastating statements".

  2. Thank you for taking the trouble to comment once again. I am sure J Rentoul's standards are always higher than mine - we are talking about the author of "The Banned List" after all!