It is a glorious morning. The daffodils are still pretty perky. The tulips are surging away. The birds are a-wooing and a-cooing all over the place, and it seems absolutely criminal on a morning like this – an April morning, when there is frankly nowhere in the universe more lovely than England – that I should be sitting inside and slaving over a computer and brooding about Damian McBride.
I don’t want to talk about McBride. I don’t want to think about him. There is a large part of me that does not want to read another sentence about this lately exploded pustule on the posterior of the British body politic. But as I look at his rubicund face as it leers from the papers, and as I study his ludicrous emails, I feel it is my duty to history to share with readers my own experience of McBride and McBride-ism.
It was a trivial enough episode in itself. And yet it left me convinced that this decaying, clapped-out, paranoid Labour government had finally forfeited the moral authority to rule, for one simple but decisive reason: they were patently more interested in themselves than in the good of the country.
My moment of revelation took place in August last year. It was the Olympic handover party in Beijing, and it had been organised with great panache and economy by the London authorities. It was a terrific, almost euphoric event in the courtyard of one of the old hutongs.
The mood was exalted not so much because London was to be the next host city, but because we were celebrating extraordinary athletic achievements by Team GB. British competitors had not only done well in cycling, sailing and rowing. They had produced some sensational results in boxing and in track and field; and the overall result was the best performance by a British Olympic team for 100 years.
Here, surely, with the eyes of the world upon us, was the moment for the handful of British politicians to put aside party squabbles. It was a moment for maturity. It was a moment to stop spinning and sniping. It was time to salute the athletes and bask in their reflected glory. Or so you might have thought. It must have been sometime after midnight, when the speeches had been made and the athletes cheered for the umpteenth time, that someone came up and whispered some mystifying news. There was a picture of Myra Hindley on display somewhere in the compound.
What? I said. Why on earth would someone be showing a picture of the notorious child-killer? What had she got to do with the Olympics? It turned out that her portrait was indeed briefly visible, for those with sharp eyes, in a tourism promotion video that was being shown on one of the TV screens. The image had been culled from the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Young British Artists, and was presumably designed to show that London was the home of cool, groovy and cutting-edge art and culture of all kinds. In defence of those who made this promo video, Hindley was only on screen for a second, and the video had been used for at least two years, around the world, without any previous complaint. Still, it was an obvious goof. We pulled it at once, and hoped the fuss would die down.
We reckoned without McBride, who was there with his master, Gordon Brown. All night, the media obsession with Myra Hindley seemed to grow. And that was because all night McBride was on the phone trying to crank the story up – demanding investigations, demanding apologies, issuing furious denunciations in the name of the Prime Minister. At one stage, it really looked as though the good feeling engendered by a British sporting triumph would be extinguished by a hoary old controversy about a Myra Hindley painting.
And who was the fly in the ointment? Who was the slug on the milk bottle? Who was the proverbial t— in the punchbowl of Olympic joy?
It was the Prime Minister’s press officer and strategist, Damian McBride. Because, of course, it wasn’t any member of the British team who saw and identified the Hindley portrait. It wasn’t even a member of the press corps. It was a member of Gordon Brown’s party who spotted the fleeting howler, and it was McBride who – with the indulgence of his boss – tried to turn it into a story.
I was left in the end with a feeling of amazement and disgust. Here was a man paid a six-figure sum, by the taxpayer, to present and explain the work of government. He had flown half-way round the world, again at the expense of the taxpayer, to attend a celebration of British Olympic achievement.
But he had walked into that event determined to find fault. He didn’t give a monkey’s about the athletes, and he didn’t give a toss about the way Britain might be perceived by other countries. He simply wanted to find a way – any way – of having a go at the London authorities who had organised the affair, because the people of London had recently had the temerity not to vote for a Labour mayor. He wanted to poison the party, even if it meant embarrassing Britain in a foreign capital. He did not succeed, but I am afraid that in that moment he and his master stood revealed.
Look at these emails, and the nauseating priorities they show. This McBride has been in charge, since September, of government strategy. He is meant to be coming up with ways of helping people through the recession. And what do we have? A load of pathetic and invented smears, with McBride egging on the blogs to mount false attacks not just on MPs but on their wives.
It is contemptible, and it is a function of the bunker-like desperation in which the Prime Minister and his allies now find themselves.
In their relentless, brutal, tribal viciousness they are no longer interested in doing good for the country, but only in doing down their opponents. They have lost their moral case to govern the country. They must go.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 14 April, 2009 under the heading: “The night in Beijing when I saw Damian McBride’s true colours.”]