PROFILE: Damian McBride, Political and press adviser, Number 10

'I just wish for once you'd try to get past your cynical, Tory, halfwit Harold Lloyd schtick to try and be a genuine journalist,' read Damian McBride's text message to the outgoing chief political correspondent of The Times.

McBride: King of the killer texts
McBride: King of the killer texts

‘It’s presumably cos of your inability to do so that you’re off to earn a crust at some Tory think-tank instead. Pathetic.’

That text, sent to Anthony Browne earlier this year, has gained something of a legendary status among lobby journalists ever since it was read out to much amusement at Browne’s leaving do in May.

The exchange that prompted this tirade happened just a few weeks before Browne was due to quit The Times to head the Policy Exchange, a think-tank seen to have close links to Gordon Brown’s great rival David Cameron. The political correspondent had asked McBride for a comment on his paper’s scoop that Brown had been warned in advance about the problems his 1997 pensions fund raid would cause.

‘I’d had a completely cordial relationship with him until it became public that I was due to leave for the Policy Exchange,’ says Browne. ‘I wasn’t his favourite journalist on The Times but he was quite civil to me. Then when I left I became the enemy.’

The episode provides a useful glimpse into the tactics employed by 33-year-old McBride, who swings into action next week to push his boss’s messages at the Labour Party conference.

As the Prime Minister’s special adviser on press issues, he works closely with director of communications Mike Ellam. But while Ellam acts as the PM’s official spokesman, conducting twice-daily lobby briefings on the record, McBride operates in the shadows and is perceived to be closer to the PM. He is more likely to be found covertly briefing key editors and political commentators over long lunches or working the room at media parties. He also deals with personal PR for Sarah Brown, the PM’s wife.

The New Statesman’s political editor Martin Bright says: ‘He’s very likeable – until you get on the wrong side of him. It’s the usual high-profile political spin doctor combination of a charmer and a bully.’

The lager-loving special adviser is well-known by many in Westminster for heading off to the pub in the evening and proceeding to text wayward journalists with his take on their stories.

‘He can text people relentlessly once the first editions come in,’ says one member of the lobby. ‘He basically lives on the phone or the text. I think he’s had a few arm-ache problems from having his phone glued to his ear all the time.’

Another lobby hack testifies that ‘he doesn’t really shout at people. He just sends killer texts’.
McBride also stands accused – though not proved guilty – of more Machiavellian forms of spin-doctoring. In particular, insiders recall the stories that surfaced whenever Brown’s bid to succeed Tony Blair as Labour leader came under threat.

‘Anybody who was potentially a rival to Gordon would suddenly find lots of negative stories about them in the press,’ says one. ‘Whether it was David Blunkett, Alan Milburn or John Reid – with all the disasters in the Home Office – and then David Miliband. A lot of people would say those stories have come from Damian.’

Yet most political journalists are appreciative of McBride’s direct style. They know him as a fast talker, capable of reeling out a complex ‘line to take’ in seconds and showing little hesitation in belting out withering put-downs of Tory politicians.

‘He’s not your normal restrained civil servant and that makes him very effective,’ says one hack. Another lobby journalist on a paper with a track record of being less-than-friendly to the PM says of McBride: ‘He’ll deal with you on an honest basis instead of bullshitting you so that you’re pissed off the next morning when you see the other stories.’

Other hacks admire McBride’s energy levels. ‘At the Labour conference, I’m sure he’ll be one of the last to bed and the first up,’ predicts one respected political editor.

The ebullient McBride may have a fearsome reputation for jumping down the throats of anyone who steps out of line, but he is also considered to be exceptionally bright and extremely helpful to friendly journalists.

Key allies include The Times’ Philip Webster, The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour and The Telegraph’s Andrew Porter. The Sun’s political editor George Pascoe-Watson is understood not to be top of McBride’s Christmas card list. The Murdoch papers are no longer given preferential treatment.

‘Damian’s expertise is that he knows everyone in the lobby,’ says one hack. ‘He’s really good at getting to know the individual journalists – it’s more about individuals.’

In politics and political journalism there is an unwritten contract between key players in both camps. Political hacks can be on or off-message, but if they opt for the former approach they will get better stories.

Conversely, those who pen negative pieces can expect to go to the back of the queue for the next interview with the PM.

For all the talk of no spin, the current Number 10 media operation is no different to others in this respect. But under McBride’s regime, offending hacks are at least given a lifeline – eventually.

‘Damian doesn’t really cut people off if they do a bad story,’ says one political editor. ‘He’ll just send them a nasty text, but then he’ll start speaking to them again after a couple of weeks. It’s not like you’re blanked forever.’


Turning Points - What’s his role?

According to 10 Downing Street, McBride is ‘the only special adviser in Downing Street dealing with the media. He handles party political press issues that cannot be dealt with by civil servants.’

What was his biggest career break?

Unlike many former press secretaries, McBride does not have a background in either party politics or journalism. Instead, he has held a number of civil service posts at various parts of the Treasury. He caught Gordon Brown’s eye in 2000 as the official responsible for leading the Treasury’s response to the first wave of fuel protests. According to one insider: ‘His hardline stance impressed Brown because he eventually stared out the truckers and forced them to capitulate.’

Who are his predecessors?

McBride took over from Ian Austin as Gordon Brown’s adviser on political press issues after the 2005 General Election. Before that, Brown’s press adviser was Charlie Whelan.

Tony Blair’s last communications director was David Hill.

Where are they now?

Austin is now Labour MP for Dudley North. Whelan lives in Scotland and writes a regular column for PRWeek. Hill this week started as a director at the Bell Pottinger Group.


CV

2007 Political and press adviser to Prime Minister

2005 Special adviser to Chancellor Gordon Brown

2003 Head of communications and strategy, HM Treasury

2001 Head of VAT strategy, HM Customs and Excise

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