Damian McBride is a former spin doctor to Gordon Brown who came out of the political shadows in 2010 when an email discussion he was involved in about the disseminating of fictitious rumours about Conservative politicians’ private lives was published. As a result he resigned from his position within Government.
His book Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin is the story of his career in the Civil Service and later as Brown’s special advisor.
It aims to lift the lid on the dirty goings on in parliament and the life of a political spin doctor.
Throughout the book McBride is blunt in his style and lays out what he did in varying levels of detail and makes no secret of the illicit tactics he used.
Going a step further he often explains to the reader the intricacies of dealing with the press including “lying without lying”, a skill he developed in university.
It presents an unparalleled insight into the operation of modern government and exposes the dark reality that was New Labour.
The book begins with his days at university and he immediately surprises the reader with his pathological competitiveness.
He progresses onto the Civil Service fast track scheme and recounts his experience of the examinations system, vividly describing the overly rigorous system it is structured around.
He rose through the Treasury department eventually becoming head of communications and it is here the book really begins to hook in the reader with its tales of deceit and its unparalleled insight into the internal workings of the Treasury department and Government.
His elaborate explanation of the Budget process is where we first learn of the tactics he is pushed into using to prevent Budget speculation.
These tactics include leaking stories from other Government departments to keep newspapers occupied.
It is here we see McBride go from overly ambitious to downright devious.
The book is divided into sections each corresponding to a different stage in his career. Appropriately for his time as Treasury Press Secretary is titled Going to the Dark Side.
This is where we see McBride’s moral descent become apparent and the tactics he learnt in the Treasury become normal behaviour to him.
McBride begins to manipulate stories into creation by diverting the press’ attention. Often they are simply to satisfy the press or ‘hacks’ as he often calls them or to divert press attention from poor electoral performance. As the 2008 local elections approached we are given an intriguing insight into the institutional pressure there was to lie or use subterfuge to gain political advantage out of turmoil.
However I found that one of the most surprising and most potent effects of the book was the humanisation of Brown.
A famously uncharismatic man, who struggled in interviews, was told to be genuinely concerned for his aides and he is even said to have shed a tear for McBride when he learns of the death of his father.
The powerful effect of his disapproval when McBride resigns show us a man who was far more respected and dynamic than we could have thought. McBride gives us an account of some of the most controversial years in British politics and the incessant in-fighting that ensued under Blair’s premiership.
Such insight is invaluable to anyone interested in politics but more fundamentally it reveals the dark hidden pressures that emanated from a Government obsessed with its image and through this it poses the question to the reader, ‘is it ok to lie?’.
Power Trips helps you to understand McBride’s actions and is a thoroughly worthwhile read.