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A setback, not a crisis

Posted on 13 April 2009 | 12:04pm

The word crisis is the most overused in the media lexicon.
In ten years with Tony Blair, I think I witnessed five full blown crises –
Iraq, Kosovo, September 11, fuel protests and foot and mouth disease.

There were hundreds of situations described as crises, but
for me that means a set of circumstances which threatens to overwhelm your entire
organisation if the wrong decisions are taken. So the hundreds of so-called
crises were setbacks, problems unwanted or unexpected events which got in the
way, temporarily at least, of the strategic direction of the government.

The Damian McBride affair is a setback, a problem, an
unwanted if not entirely unexpected event which temporarily at least gets in
the way of the strategic direction of the government.

What must be particularly annoying for Gordon Brown is that,
thanks in large part to his successful handling of the G20 summit, the
strategic direction of the government was becoming stronger. He looked the
right man for the right problem, making the right alliances at the right time,
and David Cameron looked out of his depth. A Tory party anxious to make politics
a policy-free zone will milk the McBride row for all it is worth.

A real crisis may require new policy, structures and
personnel. The response to a a setback will depend on circumstances, but two
general rules should apply:

First, decide what you really believe to be the right thing,
and do it.

Second, get the whole story out there as quickly as you can,
however murky.

That second lesson was one we learned particularly painfully
as some of the frenzies in The Blair Years showed.

This is now one of those stories that will be picked away at
until all the loose ends are pulled, so best to get them pulled quickly. For
that reason, I hope someone inside No 10 is getting to the very bottom of this
episode now.

I do not for one second believe Gordon Brown would have
known about this, let alone sanctioned it.  As I said on the blog yesterday, policy is where the Tories
are weak. It is where Gordon is strong. Of course relatives have been targeted
before, usually left of centre wives – Hillary, Cherie, and Glenys all spring
to mind. But I know Gordon well enough to know he would have no truck with what
was being mooted in these emails.

But it did happen on his watch and with one of his key
people involved. So, on doing the right thing, there is the question of
Cameron’s call for an apology. There may be politics attached to it, but it is
worth asking the question – if a Tory spin doctor had been found to be planning
smears against the families of Labour politicians, would we have asked for, and
expected, an apology? I think the answer is yes.

The worry may be that if he does, the Tories will then move
to what they see as the bigger prize – an apology for the global economic crisis
(a real crisis by the way, and GB’s first.) But I have seen a fair bit of
polling on this. The public are not looking for an apology. They are looking to
the government to sort it out, and GB has been getting more credit from the
public on that than the media debate would suggest.

Which brings me back to the real damage of this setback –
the halting of the traction he was getting on the economic situation; the
stalling in the sense growing that the Tories under Cameron would not be up to
the scale of the task in hand.

It will not be easy to penetrate the noise surrounding the
McBride affair in the short term. But provided the right things are done in the
coming days, it will be possible to get back on to the policy track quicker
than it may seem to those in No 10 today. First off though, the public has to see
that when GB says he condemns this type of politics, he really means it.

  • dmc5007

    The Tories want as much traction from this as possible and the longer it goes on the better for them, talk of enquiries is nonsense and there are much more important things for the PM to be concentrating on.

    So while this is a distraction you are absolutely right – this is not a crisis but while it takes the public’s eye off the real issues it can only embolden the Tories until an absolute line is drawn under the issue. That means plugging this drip-drip of news and accusations and ending any more avenues for the Tories to plunder the headlines with.

  • Grumpy Old Man

    Dear Alistair. Your party is hell-bent on taking the wrong decisions over a set of circs. The blogosphere has come through the Ardennes and is behind the Maginot Line of spin,deception and fear that you and Mandy built to manage both the MSM and your own MP’s. And the beauty of it all is that you don’t (publicly) seem to realise this. Both this post and the previous one, distancing yourself from the current Labour practice of those black arts that you are a master of, give the impression that you are past it. I don’t believe you, and I am certain that, after the clearout of No10 of the toxic ones, you will be again central to Labours dirty tricks organisation. I shall follow your future career with great interest.

  • oldrightie

    “First, decide what you really believe to be the right thing, and do it”

    Yup, regardless of what that belief is. You and your mendacious gang of cretins can just up the postal ballot numbers. If it’s believed to be the right thing.
    Are you aware how few people come after your Government. Too scared of the potential consequences of being monitored by your stooges and stazi.

  • Jondo

    Dear Alastair

    The first response that you set out to a setback was to ‘decide what you really believe to be the right thing, and do it’.

    However later on when discussing whether GB should apologise for the economic crisis, you do not discuss an apology to your own guidelines of whether it is the right thing to do or not, but rather based upon the polling you have seen and therefore what will resonate with the public.

    Are these two positions consistent?
    Or when you say ‘right thing to do’, do you mean ‘right thing’ politically?

  • Alina Palimaru

    Brilliant distinction between two completely different situations! It highlights the need to step back from the media-induced frenzy and ask a few questions to understand what this whole thing is about. A calm, cerebral reaction is much needed now, even if it will mean the media will be running out of fodder for their bitch-fest.

    I remember how panicked and furious some of the outlets were here in the US after Obama had delivered his superb speech on race (following the Rev. Wright controversy, which some hurriedly thought would effectively end Obama’s presidential run). They were mad because instead of bile, anger, and more accusations they had been provided with a balanced, calm, wise response to a delicate issue, which was inconsistent with the media plans for more inflammatory coverage. Well done AC!

  • Mike Hobday

    I hope it’s not true, as reported, that McBride reported directly to Gordon Brown. I want Gordon to be managing the economy, not the operatives. Is there a chief of staff, and is s/he managing these people properly?

  • Alan Quinn

    I think you miss the point a bit Ally. Will the general public be discussing this at work, down the pub, at the match etc? Or will they be worried about their jobs? It will be fish and chip paper this time next week.
    As long as the public see the government actively trying to help by bringing forward building of new schools, hospitals, rail links, by helping Jaguar/Land Rover, by ordering British Nimrod spyplanes for the RAF instead of ordering 40 yr old US Boeings (the budget for this is in place, no new money is needed) the public will see that he’s on their side.

  • Scary Biscuits

    Alastair might well be out of the inner circle. Otherwise he would never be reduced to giving his advice publicly.

    My question, though, is could Brown take it even if he wanted to? The ‘right thing to do’ would be, as Al suggests, to apologise. But if Brown chose this route, he would have to make it credible. It would have to be accompanied by clearing out all the other related issues. This is the problem. It would mean getting rid of Charlie Whelan (again). It would mean finding another job for Tom Watson outside the bunker. Brown has already lost his equivalent of Al. Without these other two he would be naked. I just don’t think he could do it.

    The obvious alternative, which almost all Labour party supporters are studiously ignoring, is to find a new leader. He, not Watson, McBride or Whelan is the key problem. As Al says, the Labour party has many great policies. The trouble is that Brown is emphatically not the right person to sell them to the electorate. All he knows how to do is bully and smear. He cannot evangelise. Even his G20 triumph left people vaguely thinking he had done well but not really knowing what at. Unlike Blair, he lacks the rhetorical skill of persuasion.

    The longer Brown stays as leader, the worse it will be for the Labour party. Plenty of opportunities have already been passed by. Each time, procrastination wins. The senior people in the party need to get a grip of their balls and ‘do the right thing’.

    P.S. Al, your website post a comment box doesn’t display properly in IE 8.0. IMHO I think you’ve tried too hard with the layout of your blog. Stick to a more traditional format and you’ll make it easier for people to read.

  • Dick the Prick

    There really should have been some kind of damage limitation prep at least. If you’re gonna plan something – at least plan for it going tits up too. Media is changing but good admin never does.

  • CPW

    Alan Johnson, BBC “Gordon is not responsible for every single person who works for him, for what they do in their own time.”

    When I was studying Business Studies at Burnley Municipal College (a building Im sure you’re familiar with AC) one of the things my tutor impressed on us was that a manager delegates authority but, still, responsibility falls at his door ultimately. Does this maxim of business management not hold for the mandarins of geovernment too?

    Think he was distinguishing authority from responsibility. Mt Johnson seems sadly to have confused them. Bringing him to college for a fresher course next time you venture to the Happy Valley, AC

  • Ian Eastwood

    What an absolute balls up. Political jibbing is nothing new, it’s a dirty game. But how on earth did McBride think this wouldn’t end up as front page news playing right into the arms of the Tory’s.

    This at a time when Cameron seem to be flaying around in quicksand looking for some policies. Now he’s no need to bother for a couple of weeks.

    When will some of Labour’s top people learn the “what if “ rule? Seemingly never.

  • Victoria Bates

    Interested by your blog post today, would like to use it for a news story but would be good to have a chat about where GB can go from here, potential candidates to fill McBride’s shoes etc. If you can, please give me a call on 7015 1215… Victoria, CityA.M.

  • Andy G

    What would Gordon Brown be apologising for exactly? McBride has gone and his actions have been condemned I’m not sure what an apology would achieve. I also think it might sound a bit silly apologising for someone else’s blunder.

  • Charlie

    Setback not a Crisis……AC doing what he does best!

    Brown and this Labour Government are like Monty Python’s Dead Parrot.

    If they were’nt “nailed to the perch” til 2010 by electoral rules, they would certainly have “shuffled off this mortal coil and gone to meet their maker” long before now.

  • Jane A

    I think the other thing which distinguishes a setback from a crisis is longevity & the sooner this is closed down, the easier it settles into the background. If GB were to apologise – not because he knew, but because it happened under his roof – people will feel he is listening to concerns and responding appropriately.

    Secondly, if I were he, I would expel DMcB and DD from the Labour Party for bringing it into disrepute. Over, sorted, move on.

  • John Egan

    There is no doubt that has been damaging. However, while the Tories will use this to avoid the real issues facing the nation and indeed there lack of policies as Alastair rightly mentions there are positives.

    This has been dealt with swiftly and correctly and I am sure the public will see that. If anyone is spinning here it is the British media. Whether or not it is a matter for Brown to apologise and I don’t think it is the fact that this seems to be the most important issue for the BBC at the moment is deeply worrying.

  • Leveller on the Liffey

    Andy G – What Brown would be apologising for is the actions of one of his senior aides which has brought politics into disrepute.
    Saying that he is sorry for what one his people has done is not the same as accepting responsibility for it.
    Besides, it puts a stop to incessant calls for an apology every time a Tory gets on the media, national or local.

  • CPW

    An analogy: Fred the Shred didn’t personally transact the business that wiped 70% off RBS’s value. However, he took the brunt. He was responsible. Authority was delegated in his name to take those risks and he chose inept people to take them.

    Brown employed the cretin McBride and should therefore acknowledge his mistake. You’re known by the comapany you keep after all.

    Thats why AC keeps dropping Bono and Geldoff’s fucking names every other blog.

  • Alex

    You really are so full of it. The G20 summit has been seen by most serious commentators for what it was, ans a meaningless PR exercise by heads of state who mostly have no authority to spend the headline numbers that were talked about, although the numbers were themselves either vacuous reannouncements or mistsatements of existing arrangements. Brown is going nowhere on the economic front. He never had a clue and he never had the objectivity to analyse the state of the economy.

    This is a crisis, but not for the people of this country but for politicians such as your self who have operated by controlling the mass media. Hitherto, that was possible, but now with the medium of the internet, the collective ability of the people far outweighs the capabilities of those such as yourself who have sought to manipulate public opinion.

  • Émilianna

    The media deals in hyperbole. Everything is a crisis or a controversy.

    Jane: Good point about the “not under my roof”.

    I’m not a spin doctor but my instinct would have been for GB to deal with this categorically: this is what happened, these are the consequences, this is what I’m prepared to do about it, and, it stops now. Whether or not the Tories and the media want to drag this out has nothing to do with Labour at this point. It should be in the past. There’s something dignified about moving on and letting the hyenas sort their misery out for themselves.

    Again, I have no “communicating” expertise whatsoever.

    Charlie: if the McBride affair is a crisis, I am positive residents of Zimbabwe will gladly trade crises with the British people.

  • Kevin

    It’s a distraction but then even a distraction can help since people fed the story of ‘economic Gordon’ continuosly can come to see him as one dimensional. This is a chance for Gordon to hammer home is own moral image. It also gives him the chance to purge those who are going to be unhelpful in the run-up to a General Election. Having a mass clear-out at all levels of government should provide the press plenty of chatter especially if new faces are also combined with personality. This chance may not come again and so should not be wasted.

  • Victor, NWKent

    Crisis! What crisis?

  • Pam Spooner

    Why don’t you just open a bottle of whisky and go back where you belong? You always were a shit….And take Draper and Brown with you……None of you have long to go anyway…..

  • jayprich

    Dear Alastair,

    I agree your main point that an apology was warranted and should be given.

    The media frenzy will of course abate as you describe, however you omit to comment on the cumulative damage of a “non-crisis”. I feel this one will not leave the public’s “sub-conscious” as it is linked to Brown’s choice of people around him.

    The economic crisis cannot be averted or its effects universally mitigated, to assert UK plc or Govt has strategic direction is nonsense, we and other countries are firefighting. Gordon Brown’s choice of policy is just a matter of picking winners and losers: it can be a shorter but sharply painful contraction hurting all but the most prudent savers or a long and painful stagflation hurting (in real terms) all but the most profligate. In my view and Merkel’s he is making a bad choice. He can only hope the US-China trade war doesn’t kick off.

    Your media handling advice “get the whole story out there as quickly as you can, however murky” seems not to have been followed and I think that chance has gone and that Draper’s position will prove untenable given his apparent enthusiasm for even the initial puerile smear stories suggested by McBride.

    Thank you for an excellent blog.


  • Alan Douglas

    Alastair, you accidentally missed out a word. It should read :

    STEALING “policy is where the Tories are weak. It is where Gordon is strong”

    A list of the policies that Bliar and McGloom have lifted, and then implemented feebly, would reach the moon, and back.

    Mr Spin, who do you think you are kidding, the days of controlling the media about the PM’s underwear are long gone.

    Alan Douglas

  • Paul R

    While the e-mails from Damian McBride were nasty and completely inappropriate, far more serious scandals have been given far less coverage in the media.
    Take for example scandal involving Ian Oakley who was Conservative candidate for Watford. He was convicted of 2 years of sustained harassment against his Lib Dem opponents. He defaced their local office with graffiti, vandelised cars, made nuisance phone calls for months and painted ‘pedo’ on the front door of another Lib Dem (also making accusations elsewhere that the man was a convicted paedophile). After Oakley was convicted, the Conservatives would not comment on the matter because he was no longer a member of the party. As far as I am aware, none of those abused received a personal apology from David Cameron. I believe the Daily Mail only wrote two stories on the Ian Oakley case – there are more than that today on Damian McBride.

  • Russell

    Alistair, isn’t it strange how every Labour supporting journalist or newscaster says the PM said “a matter of great regret” and then does not say what the regret was about ! The PM regretted Labour were found out I think and he is desperately trying to make out he knew nothing and the code of conduct was at fault. He doesn’t say he regrets the pain suffered by those who had stories invented by Labours head of policy who he appointed, he doesn’t say he regrets not sacking his chum McBride (he eventually resigned). Instead the PM sends out Blears, Johnson, Pound etc. to state repeatedly that he acted properly. Journalists should start to hold this government to account a lot more.

  • Tiresias

    Gordon Brown is one of those minor Prime Ministers, like Lord Rosebery and will mostly be remembered for this sort of daft and filthy scandal. It’s him, it’s the way Gordon is, a strange, angry man, capable of intelligent thought and resolution, but horribly flawed by a foul streak of hatred.

  • jed

    Your blog misses a key point for me in that new labour appear to have established long standing aggressive spin tactics. One cannot stand back and complain ‘what a suprise’, and ‘nothing to do with me’ and ‘lets get back to the economy’, when your loyal pit bull terriers bite people and you are caught out as the master and trainer.

  • John Roberts

    Why Alastair, if something was wrong, was McBride not sacked? It smacks of weakness on Gordon’s part. If Gordon ‘condemns this type of politics’ why did he not sack him, and everyone else involved immediately and personally? Or did he just want to keep them happy, and ensure that they end up with nice pay-offs, so that he can bring them in to do exactly the same thing in 3 years time?


    “policy is where the Tories are weak, it is where Gordon is strong”??? My God, what more can this lot do to the country beyond bankrupting us and setting up an obscenely bloated client state? Still, at least Gordon is strong on policy!

  • Arthur

    I note Mark Kermode’s rather wet interview of you on the late review the other week. The central thrust of your argument was that cynical journalists and bloggers were to blame for the public’s cynicism in respect of the motivations of our politicians and C U oN TuesdayS like yourself. As an ordinary member of the public (and former Labour voter), I take issue with you on that. We see you for what you are – a feckless bully and sociopath who should be held accountable for pushing us into the war in Iraq on the basis of a lie – Michael Shipster knew there were no WMDs in Iraq prior to the invasion and told the government. I know many ex servicemen who would dearly love half an hour with you in a locked room to discuss the point – perhaps you could one day oblige them for charity?

    The most amusing thing here is that you continue to believe that you can help Labour at the next election; are you completely stupid? Don’t you realise that you have no credibility with the public and that Labour are greatly diminished by their continuing association with you? I doubt it, because you don’t appear to be someone who has any modesty or sense of their own limitations – what on earth were you thinking when you stepped into a room full of professional athletes and thought you could give them a team talk prior to one of the biggest matches of their lives (ref: Britsh Lions tour to NZ)? And your sporting credentials are what exactly??????


    ps – can you do us all a favour and stop writing articles in the sporting section of the Times. I don’t care that you pride yourself on doing Triathlons and I am not interested in who you think the greatest sportsman are of all time. Your articles diminish what was once a great paper.

    pps – your novel, like your first work of fiction (the dodgy dossier) is a load of S H I T E. Don’t give up the day job.

  • Danny Kelly

    The Damian McBride blog should have been circulated to labour bloggers throughout the country to reiterate to the media that while some Labour advisers have been found guilty it is hardly endemic on the scale the Tories are suggesting. The BBC 5 Live lunchtime discussion on the topic was so one sided with time given to Amery who was fed lines by the presenter. I wish I had read your blog before trying to phone them.