Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday 27 September 2013

Power Trip by Damian McBride - Review

When Iain Dale first made public the fact that Damian McBride was going to publish a book about his experiences as Gordon Brown's spin doctor I instantly suspected it was going to be one of the most important political books of the decade.

Despite largely being out of favour since he was fired in April 2009 as a result of the leak of the "Red Rag" emails, in recent times he had begun something of a political rehabilitation due to his brilliantly written blog where he would occasionally comment on former and current political events. In this format he wrote with sincerity, self-criticism and with deep insight regarding the issues he was covering. In particular I recall his blog post* following the omnishambles budget last year where he revealed the secrets of the "score card" system that had been used during his time at the Treasury and how the fact that some of the measures that Osborne had tried to introduce would never had (and indeed didn't) made it through in his time thus demonstrating weaknesses in the current setup.

So it was clear that McBride is an excellent writer of long-form blog posts (my favourite kind) and he clearly had lots of experience at the heart of the Labour government. I was therefore greatly looking forward to the release of Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin. I am happy to say that I have not been disappointed.

The first thing to say is that I think the book is structured very well. It is essentially in the form of 52 long-form blog posts. As this was clearly a format that worked well for him the decision to structure it in bite-sized chunks certainly seemed to work. I suspect there was more than a little of Dale's influence at work here, himself an experienced and successful political blogger. One result of this decision is that although the book does follow a sort of chronology there is a fair bit of jumping about in order to link things that had happened previously and that also happened in the future that were relevant in some way or that presaged later events. But I think it works as a device as it helps set the context and also shows like a flashing beacon as the book progresses the car crash that is inevitably coming.

When I saw McBride interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight just before the book's publication Paxman rather sneeringly (as is his wont) asked him how we could believe anything in the book given that in various places in it he admits to having previously lied when a spin-doctor. I can't be 100% sure that everything in the book is 100% true but all I can say is it reads as if written from the perspective of someone who is deeply sorry about the worst of his actions and is still trying to come to terms with the person he became as he was sucked further and further into the mire of dirty politics.

I'm not going to single out any of the revelations in the book as they have been done to death in the mainstream media. I knew a few of them but there are plenty that were new to me. It is really however more interesting for the general picture it paints of life as close adviser to Gordon Brown.

Brown comes across as a kindly but irascible figure, prone to outbursts of temper whilst also capable of extraordinary acts of kindness such as his words to McBride on the death of his father about how proud he must have been of him and his brothers whilst he sat there in a pub with tears rolling down his face. Brown is also painted as an intellectual titan and voracious reader who never, ever stopped thinking about politics and what the next job was.

A laugh out loud moment is when he has to deliver bad news early on to Brown who predictably reacts badly, shouting with his fists balled moving towards him (although McBride makes clear Brown was never physically violent towards anyone in his experience) and he figures the best response is to get angry himself so he starts shouting, swearing and kicks over a chair. At which point Brown instantly stops and tells him to calm down! An interesting tactic I might have to remember myself one day.

The two Eds, Miliband and Balls regularly pop up and are treated sympathetically. They come across as highly intelligent both with economics and also politics and are key figures throughout the book. There are also some interesting insights from McBride as to what drives each man based upon his up close observations. The section where Ed Miliband eventually decides he can't trust our protagonist any more is chilling with respect to the sang-froid with which the final call where he repeatedly tells him he thinks he is a "liar" is delivered. Food for thought for anyone who thinks Miliband does not have the steel to be Prime Minister one day. He clearly does if this is anything to go by.

On the subject of dirty tricks which are covered extensively McBride goes into lots of detail as to how stories were leaked, political editors and reporters effectively bribed with "better" stories to head them away from things he and his boss would not have wanted splashed on the front pages and generally would seem to serve as a guide to spin-doctoring. I suspect many current and aspiring spinners will be scouring this book for tips and tricks from one of the best in the business. McBride even seems to implicitly point to his not being there as one of the main reasons for various media cock-ups such as the Gillian Duffy episode from the 2010 election where Brown was inadvertently recorded describing her as a "bigoted woman".

One criticism I would level at the book is that some of his behaviour towards the Blair camp is brushed off with a rather insouciant "they were as bad as we were" mentality. I have to say that from what I know of what happened on the Blair side of the camp, yes they were not great but any objective analysis would surely show that the Brown spin camp spearheaded by McBride were worse. Indeed McBride spells it out in painstaking detail throughout the book rather undermining his complacency in this area. A little bit more humility about this would have helped I feel.

Overall though it is an excellent read and for a political geek like me there was enough behind the scenes colour and filling in the gaps for episodes that I recall seeing unfold from the outside to keep me glued to it for the 2 days (on and off) it took me to read it. It does however lend itself to dipping in and out of due to the blog like nature of it as described earlier.

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in politics and/or the processes that go on behind the scenes. I suspect that all the main movers and shakers of all parties will have it on their reading lists, and that's if they haven't already read it. In the world of Westminster there is almost no bigger compliment for political memoirs. It shows you once mattered and Damian McBride certainly did.

PS: We covered the fallout from Damian McBride's book in this week's House of Comments podcast recorded in Brighton at the Labour conference.

*Incidentally his entire blog now appears to have been taken off the internet, perhaps because of the publication of this book but his budget post can still be seen in this cross-posting on Liberal Conspiracy.

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