Smears, lies and Downing Street

Hasan Suroor

Latest polls show that support for Labour has fallen in the wake of the smears scandal.

One doesn’t wish to spoil the fun that the Indian media is having over the war of words between Manmohan Singh and his BJP rival L. K. Advani but, really, it is nothing compared to the no-holds-barred confrontation between the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Opposition rival David Cameron.

Over the past week, headlines have been dominated by stories about a Downing Street “dirty tricks” operation run by a close Brown aide Damian McBride (nicknamed “McNasty” and “McPoison” because of his reputation for employing rather rough tactics to deal with his boss’s critics) to “smear” the Tories ahead of next year’s general elections.

Although he has since been sacked, Mr. Brown has been forced to apologise after a lot of dithering, and Whitehall is writing new rules for ministerial aides, the row rumbles on with the Tories insisting on an independent inquiry into Prime Minister’s role in what has been dubbed a “culture of bullying” at No 10: a culture that was expected to end with the demise of the Blair regime but apparently continues to flourish under Mr. Brown.

A furious Mr. Cameron said: “I do not know what Gordon Brown knew and when he knew it but what I do know is that he hired these people, he sets the culture, he is the leader.”

Mr. Brown is under pressure not only from the Tories (never mind their own record of political thuggery under Margaret Thatcher and John Major) but also from his own party colleagues. They say that he may not have been directly involved in the plot to smear the Opposition leaders but is guilty by association with Mr. McBride.

One former cabinet minister was quoted as saying: “Gordon knew the way McBride operated for years and should never have tolerated it.”

Mr. McBride had been close to Mr. Brown since their days at the Treasury when the latter was Chancellor of the Exchequer. And, as The Guardian pointed out, Mr. McBride was “intimately involved in the campaign to destabilise members of the cabinet who threatened the former chancellor” in his feuds with Tony Blair. When Mr. Brown finally replaced Mr. Blair to become Prime Minister in 2007 he brought Mr. McBride into Downing Street, apparently despite misgivings among senior Labour figures.

The row over the dirty-tricks campaign broke out over a quiet weekend just when Mr. Brown and his party were enjoying that rare thing: a “Brown bounce” after the unexpected success of the G20 summit. Post-row, Mr. Brown is back to square one with questions again being raised about his judgement and leadership. Latest polls show that support for Labour has fallen in the wake of the smears scandal and one veteran Left-wing party figure Alice Mahon, a former MP, has resigned her membership saying she had been “scandalised” by what had happened.

“I think that most decent people in the party would be shocked and scandalised by the smears that were about to be launched on our behalf,” she said.

So, what was the plot really about?

It is a complicated story, but pared down to the bare bones this is what happened: Mr. McBride sent a series of emails to another high-profile Labour apparatchik Derek Draper suggesting ideas for a website , Red Rag, that Mr. Draper was setting up to “destabilise” the Tories, as he put it.

In his emails, Mr. McBride proposed smearing Mr. Cameron and other senior Tory leaders by spreading gossip about their private lives through the new website. This included planting the idea that Mr. Cameron suffered from an “embarrassing (sexually-transmitted) illness”; the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne had sex with a prostitute and his wife was mentally “fragile”; and that a gay Tory MP had used his position to lobby for a gay businessman. He also suggested retailing an unsubstantiated allegation about a prominent woman Tory MP’s relationship with a colleague.

Rather proudly, Mr. McBride wrote that he had used a bit of “poetic licence” to spice up the stories and asked Mr. Draper: “If you think these work, let’s think about how to sequence them in with the others.”

A jubilant Mr. Draper wrote back: “Absolutely totally brilliant Damian. I’ll think about timing and sort out the technology this week so we can go [ahead] as soon as possible.”

But before they could execute their plans, the emails mysteriously fell into the hands of a Tory muckraker Paul Staines like manna from heaven. And Mr. Staines, an old foe of Messrs McBride and Draper, promptly splashed them on his own website — besides, presumably, alerting the media so that within hours it was “breaking news” on every television channel plunging Mr. Brown and his government into a perfect political storm. The rest is history, but of course it is the future that should be worrying Mr. Brown barely months before a general election.

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