Lunch with… Damian McBride

Written by David Singleton on 2 March 2015 in Features

Gordon Brown’s former spin doctor dines with David Singleton at Shepherd's

From 1999 to 2009, Damian McBride worked at the heart of the Treasury and Number 10. He was Gordon Brown’s top media adviser before a notorious scandal propelled him out of Downing Street and onto the front pages. His explosive memoir was published in 2013 and updated last year.

Where? Shepherd's is a stone’s throw away from the Home Office and has been regularly frequented by MPs, lobbyists and political journalists since 1993. The restaurant closed its doors last year, prompting lamentations across the Westminster village. But this month it has re-opened, with new owner Lionel Zetter saying: “I want to resurrect Shepherd's and take it back to its best.”

Damian ate Tartare of English venison, blueberry, radish, egg, followed by the shepherd's pie, organic lamb.

David ate Barbecue Norfolk quail, English kohlrabi, red wine, followed by suckling pork belly, quince, celeriac, bacon crumbs

We drank Meantime pilsner.

We discussed

Working for Gordon
"As time goes on, you even remember with affection and fondness the occasional moments that were absolutely awful. It’s remarkable thing but inside Downing Street after the election – which was the all-time low – there was an astonishing degree of comradery, a feeling that we’re all getting a kicking and we’re all in this together. It didn’t last long but nevertheless I look back on that with some fondness."

Working with lobby journalists
"The lobby is an essential part of the system. I think it works for the public in that it does allow newspapers and broadcasters to explain to the public what’s really happening, what’s really going on, and what the rationale is for decisions. And people can call that spin if they like but the reality is that I think the public would spend a lot of time quite bewildered about why the government takes certain decisions on certain issues unless you have someone out there saying ‘this is why we’re doing this’ on issues as complicated as whether to bomb Syria or not."

Having a different approach to Alastair Campbell
"Because he was spoon-feeding certain journalists so much, that makes you very cynical about those journalists but it also makes you treat the rest with contempt. And neither of those things are healthy. The attitude I always took was I am here to serve these people who are there because they are serving the public. 

"So I took a completely different attitude to Alastair who I think over time came to regard the press with something approaching contempt.  The very act of storming into a Channel 4 studio demanding to be put on air so that he can defend his position or his integrity or whatever, it’s an elevation of his own position. I never felt that way, I never sought that kind of profile for myself while I was doing the job, even though it ultimately came by accident."

Labour’s media operation today
"The biggest problem with the current operation isn’t about individuals; it’s that nobody knows who’s in charge. If you look back at the three people who have become prime minister since 1997, at any time, any journalist doing their job would have been able to say ‘who’s the one person I call who can tell what’s going on, what’s me the thinking behind this policy’ and they would say Alastair Campbell, me – at the time the Gordon became prime minister - and Andy Coulson. That was clear and straightforward and nobody would be in any doubt that.

"Right now one of Labour’s biggest problems is that if you ask a journalist who’s the go to person in the Labour press operation, they would say it depends what you want to know. It’s so widespread, that is a recipe for chaos on the outside but you can only imagine what a recipe for chaos it is on the inside, because none of them know who’s saying what to who. That’s how you end up with cock ups. These phrases that come out, ‘Milly Dowler moment’ and ‘weaponise the NHS’ - that might be Ed Miliband’s fault but that is typical of an operation where nobody has really got a grip, no-one is really in control. It might just about see them through opposition, it certainly is no recipe for Government, because that will just cause massive confusion if you translate the Government and nobody knows is clear who is in charge or what the official line is."

Where Ed Miliband is going wrong
"It’s too late to do some of the fundamentally different things he should have done about managing his own team. I find it astonishing if you think about the talent you’ve got around that shadow cabinet table, even around that small circle of people who came out of the last government together – Miliband, Balls, Burnham, Yvette Cooper, I’m not Douglas’ biggest fan but you can include him in that list. You think of that talent and how rarely that group are assembled to work through problems as a group. And when I say rarely I mean never.

"Whether that’s paranoia from Miliband and the people around him thinking they are being undermined, or its about not wanting to consult those people and wanting to assert his status as the boss, it’s still a mistake because who is assembled to work through the big problems that they’ve got, it’s a very lightweight crew compared to that lot. Arguably now’s the time if he’s ever going to do it to use the assets he’s got a bit more wisely and apply them to things like the debate on tuition fees that they’re having at the moment about what the policy is, how they’re going to pay for it. There’s an argument that you’re not using all the brains in the best way that you could to get to a solution on an issue like that. And there will be more issues like that before May 7th and before they finalise the manifesto."

"I was always proud that I never missed an Arsenal game, or at least never missed being at the ground when I could have been, despite the politics. But I did have one experience of spending the entire game on the concourse at Highbury on the phone to the Sunday Times I think about the Miliband brothers’ tax avoidance thing first time it came around. And I do think of that sometimes. When I was later being slagged off by David and Ed Miliband, I'd think: ‘I missed an Arsenal game for you.’ And there’s no greater sacrifice in my book. One of the things I prided myself on, when organising foreign trips for journalists, was that I would always work out where they could watch the football. But partly that was because Gordon always wanted to know where to watch the football."

The political lunch
"The thing I always found strange about the political lunch is this sense that you must bring a story. In the early days of doing the job, I had some very miserable occasions where you would come along with your pre-prepared story, almost as the price of a free lunch, and see the disappointment on the face of the person buying it, who’s thinking: ‘Is that the best you’ve got?’ And they would spend the rest of the lunch almost trying to drag anything else out of you... And I found those such wearing experiences that after a while I almost stopped wanting to go down that route. Actually, I found the best lunches after a while were where I’d successfully done business with someone, on an exclusive story or helping them get to the bottom of some issue they were exploring. And lunch was almost their way of saying ‘thanks, we could both do with a nice lunch after that’.  And those were always enjoyable because there wasn’t that sense of everything was a transaction."

Not going back
"I’ve burned a lot of bridges with being as open as I have been about what that life was like. I don’t think it’s something you can go back to. I don’t know what lures people like Alastair Campbell back, preparing people for the debates and that sort of thing. I think it’s the lure of power, wanting to tell people that you’re doing it. From a personal point of view, in terms of your life, I don’t know what draws people back in that way. It’s certainly not something that attracts me. It’s a strange thing, I’ve seen it with others, as people seem like they’re out, they just can’t resist it, they’re desperate to go back in. And it can be addictive, that feeling that you are influencing thing at the top level. Addictive but not necessarily healthy, like lots of addictions."



To book a table at Shepherd’s call 020 7834 9552.

Perfect for Discerning diners looking for quality food in a contemporary and discreet environment close to the Commons.

Not suitable for Anyone wanting to escape the Westminster village.

Top tip Ask for Jeffery Archer’s table in the corner. If you can’t get it, see who has bagged it.




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