The Prime Minister has surrounded himself with attack dogs who undermine rival politicians and critical journalists
New Labour’s 12th anniversary in power was marked on 2 May 2009. Steep has been the decline of the high hopes that greeted its victory. A movement that was committed to the democratic modernisation of Britain has imposed a Prime Minister who has not won a mandate at a general election nor secured for himself the smaller but still significant legitimacy that comes from fighting a contested leadership election within his own party. The supposed economic miracle Gordon Brown thought would allow the newly rich to provide the tax revenues for public works and wealth redistribution has crashed into a thousand pieces. Most sinisterly, what we once called “spin”, and a more plain-speaking age would have called “propaganda”, has degenerated from the manipulation of the press that all governments practise into character assassination and career destruction.
Keep the crisis of legitimacy and the inability to manage the country’s finances in mind when you think about what I suppose I can get away with calling the Downing Street filth machine. The political and the economic failures are bound up with the scandalous lies Brown’s trusted hitman Damian McBride concocted at the taxpayers’ expense.
The Prime Minister and his acolytes are often criticised by women politicians and journalists for their laddishness. Their smears show that the feminists were too kind – far too kind. The Prime Minister’s world is more than macho: it is obscene – a place so lost in pornographic fantasy that it can invent libels about the mental state of the wife of a political opponent, while never wondering what its obsessive interests say about its own neuroses.
To put it as politely as I can, dildos loom large in the Brownite imagination. The Sunday Times reported, “In his most lurid slur, McBride suggests that ‘secret tapes’ exist containing evidence that Osborne had sex with the prostitute. McBride makes obscene allegations about the use of a sex aid and also claims that drugs were taken.” McBride then went on to tell Labour’s pornographers to invent a tale about Nadine Dorries, a Tory backbencher, having “a one-night stand with a married colleague during a party away day”. Once again, Labour was to “hint that a sex aid was accidentally left in a hotel bedroom”. David Cameron was to be spared the full treatment – his young son had just died, after all. Out of respect, the Brownites decided to confine themselves to suggesting that he had a sexually transmitted disease.
In his novel Yellow Dog, Martin Amis unintentionally sketched the mentality of the make-believe world of the Labour fantasists. He gave us Clint Smoker, a porn-obsessed journalist “with a closely shaved head…a double nostril-ring in the shape of a pair of handcuffs and a startlingly realistic, almost trompe l’oeil tattoo of a frayed noose round the neck.” Smoker works on a barely fictionalised version of the Daily Sport where he forges letters to the “Dear Donna” problem page. He keeps his moronic readers happy by pretending that the successors to Lady Chatterley and the Marquis de Sade fill the upper-class.
“Dear Donna: ‘I am a nineteen-year-old heiress with a slender waist, a shapely derriere and bouncers as big as your bonce. Me passion,’ wrote Clint, and then went back to change that e to a y, ‘is to dress up in the shortest mini-skirt I can find and then go round all the shoe-shops with no knickers on. I wait until the lad sits on the seat in front of me. You should see the way they drool…'”
Brown has surrounded himself with Clint Smokers throughout his career, and set them loose to tell stories about enemies real or imagined. No claim was more laughable after the guerrilla blogger Guido Fawkes leaked the McBride briefings than Labour’s insistence that the aide was a lone wolf acting without his master’s tacit consent. In my experience, all his men – McBride, Ed Balls, Charlie Whelan, Ian Austin – share a prolier-than-thou belief that their opponents, whether Blairites or Tories, are decadent fops from a depraved elite. Any tactic is justified in the campaign against them. That Brown and Balls spent their time at the Treasury approving the laisser-faire deregulation of a City that was careering towards a crash in no way inhibits their supporters from wallowing in inverted snobbery.
The enormous sense of grievance that drives their leader strengthens the Brownite determination to attack. Journalists are now repeating the comparison between Brown and Richard Nixon that Robert Harris first made years ago. It holds because for both men self-pity and an unwarranted belief that they are victims of privileged opponents explains the bizarre disproportion of their assaults on others. Nixon did not need to destabilise the opposition in the 1972 US presidential election. The Democrats had chosen George McGovern as their candidate. He was far too liberal for the American electorate of the day and was destined to go down to a landslide defeat. Rational voters would assume that the risk of exposure far outweighed any possible political advantage. But rational people are poor judges of irrational politicians. Nixon sent burglars into Watergate for the same reason that Brown sends his creeps to mutter to journalists in Westminster bars. For Brown, as for Nixon, it is always worth playing dirty.
For you underestimate the Prime Minister if you see him merely as an ordinary operator, inspired by the everyday political calculation that it may be advantageous to besmirch a rival. He has a characteristic left-wing belief in his own righteousness. Those who oppose him cannot have an honest objection to his policies, but must be motivated by malice or envy. In his mind, no blow is too low when he fights critics who are not merely mistaken but wicked.
Providing evidence to back up this assertion is a hard task because most Westminster journalists have not covered the dark side of Brown for reasons I will get to later. I must therefore make my argument with scenes I have either witnessed myself or heard directly from unimpeachable sources.
Take this confrontation between Brown and the Labour MP and former social security minister, Frank Field. From the autumn of 2007 through to the spring of 2008, Field argued against Brown’s plans to abolish the 10p income tax rate for about five million low earners. The Government was proposing to hurt the very people it wanted to encourage: hard-working men and women who were dragging themselves away from dependence on welfare. Brown wanted to increase their taxes so that he could give the middle class a tax cut that was so negligible most of the beneficiaries would not notice it.
Field put down Parliamentary questions asking how many householders would lose out. Brown refused to answer them. Field asked for a Commons debate. Brown refused to give him one. Finally, Brown called Field to his office. “No one will lose out,” he cried.
“Why don’t you go on the record and say that?” Field asked.
Instead of answering a legitimate question, Brown pushed his face into Field’s and with features contorted with anger, screamed, “You’ve always hated me, haven’t you? You’re always trying to do me down.”
Recalling the scene makes Brown sound like a petulant teenager unable to accept that anyone could have good reasons for contradicting him. But I wonder if historians will conclude that his most remarkable political achievement was to convince large sections of the media and public that his sulks weren’t the poutings of a raging egotist but the legitimate complaints of a wronged man. The great Brownite myth is that the smooth-talking Tony Blair somehow robbed him of the Labour leadership in 1994 after John Smith’s death. As history, this is nonsense. Brown did not pull out of the contest because Blair tricked him, but because every measure of Labour Party opinion showed that not only would Blair have beaten him but so too would the outside candidates John Prescott and Margaret Beckett. Yet by the time Blair resigned as PM in June 2007, Brown had convinced himself and many others that he was not merely a possible contender among many or even the leading contender but the only conceivable contender, who should be returned unopposed. In those days, he could pretend that his economic policies had abolished the business cycle and then as now threaten potential rivals with having their reputations trashed. But although the plan worked and he reached 10 Downing Street without any leading Labour figure daring to challenge him, his triumph was too easy for his or the country’s good.
For all its faults, Britain is a democracy where authority flows from the ballot box. Coronations are for our monarchs, not our prime ministers. Brown’s lack of legitimacy, the sense that he was a usurper, niggled away at the Brownites like a toothache, and made them more vicious than before. The explosion of his empty boast to have abolished boom and bust in the year after he became leader and the frantic hope that the Brownite cause could prosper into the 2010s if Balls could be spun as Brown’s inevitable successor, made them meaner still.
Brown’s victims think they have seen his fingerprints all over the papers. Anonymous briefers assured the slippery journalists who take their stories that Harriet Harman had ideas above her station, that Douglas Alexander “has been deeply unhappy for some time and wants out” and that David Miliband was “not only disloyal but also self-serving”. In short, anyone in Cabinet who looked as if they were building an independent power base was either mad or bad. The targets had their suspicions but could not prove who was hiding behind the assassin’s cloak. But when I read that “sources close to the Prime Minister” were damning Alistair Darling for telling the Guardian last summer that we were facing the worst recession for 60 years, I knew precisely who was spreading the slur because I was there when he did it.
I was waiting with a crowd of guests at the Pillars of Hercules pub in Soho for the start of a party being thrown by Kevin Maguire, the Mirror‘s amiable political editor, to celebrate his wife’s launch of a chick-lit novel. Political journalists and rom-com novelists are not the most promising mixture for a convivial evening, but we were all rubbing along until for no reason Charlie Whelan, Brown’s point man in the unions, turned to the journalists and started laying into the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As he was speaking in a public place and did not ask to go off the record, the etiquette of journalism allows me to say that I was astonished. Darling had been a loyal friend of Brown’s, but that did not stop Whelan from denigrating him. More pertinently, it was obvious even then that we were indeed facing the gravest economic crisis of our lifetimes; obvious to everyone, that is, except the Brownites. Because Darling had implied, however obliquely, that Brown’s stewardship of the economy had been less than magnificent, Whelan and his friends were willing to betray an ally, make an unnecessary enemy and undermine the Chancellor at a moment of national danger. The result was predictable. Darling could barely contain his contempt for the deviousness of a man he once considered his friend. (I imagine having to go to work every morning and contemplate the mess Brown left at the Treasury did not help cool his temper either.) Meanwhile, Balls rode on the back of the destabilisation campaign and implied that if Brown wanted rid of the Chancellor he would blushingly step forward to offer his own modest self as a replacement. Yet Darling survived the attacks and gained in stature. I could not then and cannot now understand the backstabbing.
I doubt that such worries trouble Whelan. He is a former public school boy who affects a working-class manner. The glottal stops of his mockney accent fade and the long repressed ‘rs‘ start rolling again when he purrs out the name of “Goorrdon“. All the slyness melts from his eyes, and a look of reverence suffuses his face as he thinks of his master. For him, it is enough to do what Brown wants or what he thinks Brown wants. More significantly, Whelan, MacBride, Balls and all the rest of them have been able to persuade a large number of journalists to go along with what Brown wants too.
Since Guido Fawkes detonated his gunpowder under Westminster, it has been a joy to watch lobby correspondents scurrying from the wreckage. They hastily told us about the disgraceful treatment of Ivan Lewis, a junior Labour health minister who had trivial accusations about his sex life flammed up and splashed across the tabloids after he crossed Brown last year – although I don’t recall many of them covering the story at the time. They pointed out that the widespread ridicule of Harriet Harman and David Miliband in the media was not solely the result of journalists reaching their own conclusions – although once again it might have been better if they had revealed the activities of Brown’s anonymous briefers when it might have made a difference.
I do not want to ridicule lobby correspondents. Overall, they are a good bunch, who unlike so many modern journalists do not sit behind computer screens in newspaper offices but go out to interview sources and find stories. Yet their reports are constrained by the knowledge that no editor likes to be second with the news. McBride, Whelan and Balls exploited their professional weakness as Alastair Campbell and Bernard Ingham did before them. Offend Downing Street too often and you – and, more importantly, your employers – must accept that the Prime Minister’s office will not return your calls. Many good journalists are happy to go into opposition, and many good editors are happy to back them. Others, the majority I would say, are straightforward reporters who don’t oppose the government or support it but just get on with their work. The Prime Minister has got away with shabby tactics for so long because neither they nor Brown’s media opponents could report authoritatively on the black propaganda. Naturally, the Brownites did not tell them what they were up to. Instead, when the PM’s men had muck, they turned to a separate group of trusted journalists who, they knew from experience, would spread it for them while maintaining a dishonourable silence about the effluent’s source.
Not all of Brown’s tame hacks are on left-wing papers. His agents funnel many of his stories to friendly correspondents at the nominally Conservative Telegraph group. The fear the Brownites spread in the media, however, is almost exclusively confined to the leftish press, for the simple reason that liberal journalists who take on the Labour leader are vulnerable to accusations of playing the Tory game. The charge of treachery is a powerful one because it contains an element of truth. However well-founded a reporter’s or columnist’s objections to Brown are, however liberal the sentiments that lead them to condemn the Prime Minister, there is no escaping the fact that criticising a Labour government aids and abets the Conservative opposition. Of course it does and the only candid response to the charge of treachery is to shrug your shoulders and say that journalists must speak their minds regardless of the consequences. “Publish and be damned” is an inspiring cry but it is not always enough to stop the Brownites, who have proved themselves as adept at undermining editorial independence as undermining rival politicians. “Do you,” they ask left-wing editors and proprietors, “really think it is right that journalists working for an anti-Tory paper should do the Tories’ work for them?”
Just occasionally, their demands for censorship work. They seemed to in the case of Martin Bright, the political editor of the New Statesman. Bright’s crime was to make an uncomplimentary documentary about Ken Livingstone for Channel 4 in the run-up to last year’s London mayoral election. The film was clearly the work of a man of the Left. It criticised Livingstone’s alliances with the misogynists, homophobes and anti-Semites of the Islamist far Right and investigated the allegations of corruption and cronyism that surrounded his administration. In theory, the Left should not tolerate either clerical fascism or corruption, but in practice, it did and will do if it fears that self-criticism will give succour to the opposition. The Brownites had no difficulty in believing the Statesman was helping Boris Johnson become Mayor of London. So confident were they that they could decide who should report on politics in the left-wing press that Whelan announced to Bright’s very own wife at a public venue that he was going to get her husband fired. “I’m no fan of Livingstone, but Martin Bright should not be political editor after what he did,” he declared. The public venue in question was last year’s British Press Awards at a central London hotel. It says much about the impunity with which the Brownites have operated that Whelan was certain that none of the journalists present would blow the whistle on the state’s interference with press freedom. His insouciance was vindicated, for none did.
Political intimidation in Britain does not follow the plot lines of paranoid thrillers. Brown does not stroke a white cat in his Downing Street lair and order his minions to dispose of an inconvenient journalist. Instead of a quick assassination and being made a martyr to press freedom, Bright was put on the receiving end of a debilitating campaign of attrition. The directors of Labour think tanks added to the impression that he had committed an unforgivable blasphemy by condemning his criticism of Livingstone as a betrayal of the Left. Livingstone supporters were allowed to cover the comment threads of the Statesman‘s website with foul-mouthed jeers. And so it went on and on.
A sensible journalist will take only so much of this before leaving for a less over-heated workplace. Bright stood down amid rumours of political skulduggery which were so strong that the Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson, former proprietor of the Statesman, was compelled to write to The Times and explain: “The views expressed by our former political editor about the Prime Minister and the Government had nothing whatsoever to do with his departure, the reasons for which were non-editorial and the terms of which remain confidential between us.” It’s not just at the Statesman that you pick up a whiff of fear in the air. I know that the liberal columnists who took on Brown – most of them women, tellingly – always had one eye looking over their shoulder for McBride. If the smallest gap opened up between them and their editors, Brown’s supporters would have streamed through the breach.
For all that I understand the difficulties of my colleagues in Westminster, it remains an indictment of them that until this scandal broke, 99 per cent of the public had never heard of McBride. A full-scale government propaganda operation was under way in plain view of reporters. Partly out of self-interest, but also out of fear of the consequences, most decided that it was prudent to say nothing. Put like this, my argument makes Britain sounds as if it is a police state. The servants of an unscrupulous leader concoct vile libels about opposition politicians and their wives. They plot against the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, spreading smears about them almost for the hell it. Journalists on the left-wing press who speak out know that they may risk their careers.
But Britain isn’t a police state or anything like one. In real dictatorships people suffer for their beliefs. The only true suffering Brown has inflicted is on Britain’s idea of itself. We think of ourselves as a free, plain-speaking people – “a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit,” as Milton said. Yet we accept a PM who achieved power not through the ballot box but by bullying his critics and rivals. As with any other bully, all it would take to stop him is for his opponents to call his bluff. That for years hardly any have, says more about us than it does about him.