Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and one or two others have said that Gordon Brown's problem was partly the people he surrounded himself with mainly robust characters, who he maybe didn't reign in enough. Is there something to that?
Yes, there is some truth in that. But all prime ministers want robust people around them. They want people they feel confident and have trust in. I do think that Peter had a vested interest to make sure some of those other people were not there when he made his glorious return. There's a bit of politics there, but that's overplayed. There were times when the pressure was on, when you could probably make the case that Downing Street overreacted. A wise lobby hack told me: "The problem for the administration was the more junior people in the operation trying to prove that they knew what was going on." That was interpreted as plausible deniable briefing, when actually nobody knew where it was coming from.
I suspect the current government is afflicted with that problem right now as well because they're a new administration and people are trying to find their feet. What I certainly know about Gordon is that he would have been appalled if some of the things happened that people have said did. You can never get to the bottom of this briefing malarkey.
Why did you allow Derek Draper back in? You, of all people, must have understood what the consequences of that might be?
I didn't allow him back in. I didn't know he'd come back. He set up LabourList, which is still brilliant. It's a very useful information tool for Labour people. He was back and I gave him advice.
As did I...
Yes, the first thing that shocked him was the ferocity. The first thing you do when you blog is become horrified by the comments section. For the first few weeks he was responding to every comment on the site and getting into all sorts of bother with people. I gave some advice about how you create a moderation policy. You try to create a community of people who are relatively respectful to each other and can have a decent debate. It was better to let the community around you deal with those people who cross the line. So I helped him out. I didn't give a lot of direction. But I've got to say, when he came back I thought he'd completely transformed. I'd last seen him 15 years previously when we were probably on opposite sides of arguments in the mid-nineties, over the future direction of New Labour. But when he came back he'd got married, had a child, rather like myself, and I found him very pleasant and polite. But we didn't have a lot of day-to-day interaction. Not that you'd have thought that when you read the Damian McBride story.
Well indeed, that was a case in point. People, including me, were told things and believed them. All the trouble you and I had over the libel issue occurred because I was told by two Labour MPs that you did indeed know about all the McBride/Draper stuff. So I was prepared to believe that because you were sitting next to this guy, you must have known about it. Therefore, people do rush to conclusions. Without going into all the whys and wherefores of that particular incident, it was symbolic of the wider impression that people had.Sometimes that's fair and sometimes that's manifestly unfair. Nadine Dorries' recently told me that a former very senior cabinet member told her that I was involved with it.
Probably the same one that told me.
I asked her to tell me who it was so I could take it up with them, but she decided not to, and I'm sure you're not going to tell me. I didn't share an office with Damian Mc- Bride. Actually my day-to-day contact with Damian was very limited. I probably only spoke to him once a fortnight, which wasn't the impression given by that particular incident. It was all over this notional website they were setting up. Had anyone asked me how to go about that, I would say ‘do not do this', because the one thing I know about the internet is there is no such thing as a secret.
When you first heard about it, what was your reaction to what McBride and Draper had been up to?
My first reaction was: "Are you serious?" You're asking me to go through a very difficult time because my character was completely traduced, but nobody actually knew what the issue was when the story first came out in the Daily Telegraph on the Friday. We didn't know what the content of the emails were until the next day, but, like most people, when it came out I was horrified. When I read your blog on Saturday evening I thought: "This is my Easter weekend ruined. How do I sort this out?"
I've forever been kicking myself, because I should have sent you a very angry email saying: "Put this right." I just thought you knew that I wasn't involved in it but it was a political hit which, again, is about the trust thing in politics. What I should have done was put the matter right just there. You'd filed your copy to the Mail on Sunday, and for me that was 48 hours of hell. Nadine Dorries on telly saying: ‘This is all about saving Tom Watson', newspapers saying my reputation was on the line, and then what I consider a wider campaign by The Sun that lasted eight days, even though on the Monday you'd put the matter right on television. It's one of those things in politics that is deeply unpleasant.
It really did have a shattering effect on you.It did really. It affected my neighbours, my son hid behind the sofa because he didn't want the nasty man at the door to knock again, my wife was very upset, our privacy was turned upside down. I guess in politics you expect tough times, but you expect them in reaction to things you've done. You don't expect that to happen unjustly. I can't get out of my mind that this was just simply political malice without people trying to get to the truth. I'm not trying to blame you or anyone else, it's just the way it was. I'm certainly not blaming you.