Politicians and advisers can damage party fortunes when they brief against colleagues and allies. So why do they do it, asks John McTernan
Why do they do it? Why do politicians and their advisers brief against their colleagues? We’ve had a spate of such stories recently. Someone is attacking Alistair Darling and boosting Gordon Brown as the saviour of Better Together. Someone else is letting the press know that Nick Clegg is soft on knife crime. Clegg’s supporters respond with an attack on Michael Gove. Meanwhile Gove’s former adviser, the clever and admirable Dominic Cummings, is knifing Clegg repeatedly.
The Cummings case is the exception. It is being done publicly. No speculation is required about who is doing what, let alone what their motives are. Cummings correctly views universal free school meals as one of the craziest education policies ever invented.
It’s the others that are mystifying – at least to the outsider. Armed forces have incidents they describe as “blue-on-blue” – friendly fire. But they are accidental. These political briefings whether red-on-red, yellow-on-blue or blue-on-yellow are deliberate – and the more damaging they are, the more successful they are considered by the perpetrators.
Why do they happen? There’s a host of reasons – all of which illuminate the pathologies of modern politics. But before looking at them, let’s get one thing straight – it’s not because they are anonymous. I don’t think there has ever been a single example of successful anonymous briefing. All politicians have their own favourite journalists for briefing. Some of that is professional – obvious and transactional, some personal – and often surprising. Then, there’s the lobby habit of dining à deux – two journos, from non-competing papers, entertain a politician and then file very similar exclusives. Hard to keep under wraps.
One obvious, but rarely avoided trap is the use of specific figures of speech. Mark Latham, former leader of the Australian Labour Party, recalls one member of his front-bench team objecting to a new policy in very florid language which was then repeated verbatim in print from a source labelled inaccurately as “anonymous”. Famously, someone once briefed that the PLP would not “resile” from punishing Harriet Harman for sending her son to a grammar school. Who on earth used such recondite language? Robin Cook. And it was a briefing to The Scotsman too. Look at recent briefings in that light. Even the dogs in the street know who was attacking Alistair Darling. The question is not who, but why?
Briefers fall broadly into four categories. Firstly, there are those who have an existential problem if they aren’t in the papers. Call them sufferers from “Relevance Deprivation”. They are in effect shouting, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” Obviously, the best response to them is simply to shout: “Nurse, here’s someone who doesn’t know who they are. Get their meds.” Theirs is a cry for attention. They want credit for all that they do – and then some. They also want all the credit for what everyone else has done – particularly when that is the really hard work of wrenching victory from the jaws of defeat. You know the kind? Always there for your round, always slipped off just before their turn to buy.
Secondly, there are those who want to distract your attention. The “See The Shiny Monkey” crowd. That’s the Lib Dems today. They seriously think that rows now, whether real or factitious, can inoculate them from being judged on the record of the coalition of which they are full and practising members. Bedroom tax. Three years of no-growth. Tuition fees. All Lib Dem triumphs. It’s Murder on the Orient Express – they all did it. And voters never forget.
Third, there are the copy-cats. The ones who think – “A Big Boy Does It, So Can I”. In the early years of the Blair government they were all around. They thought Alastair Campbell was a press secretary who shouted at journos, so they did too. Trouble for them was that Alastair had authority; what he said mattered because of who he said it on behalf of. If you work for – or are – a weak politician, getting shirty or shouty simply diminishes you further.
Finally, there are the pyschos. That’s the nicest term I can think of using. There is another, more technical term used by professionals to describe them, but this will do. Iris Murdoch had one of her characters say: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”
Depressing, damaging and self-indulgent. But predictable as part of a profession which incentivises being a brutal loner all the way to the top. You don’t get selected or promoted for being a team player. You get ahead by being seen, and by being seen to be seen. “Seeking”, in Shakespeare’s words, “the bubble reputation.” What is miraculous is how many senior politicians are actually genial, productive and co-operative while being products of a brutal internal process.
There are alternative ways of working. Presidential campaigns are normally models of discipline. Partly because they are one-man-bands. When your candidate falls, you all fall with him. The exception being the utterly disastrous campaign where desperate leaks mimic my old school’s informal motto – “It wisnae me.” One other model is closer to home. Alex Salmond has instilled an uncanny discipline in his party, and that has been successfully transferred to the Yes campaign. That is explained partly by the politics. The SNP are as riven with differences of view on policy and personality clashes as any political party. What unites them is their totalising ideology. Everything will be solved by independence, so everything can be subordinated to that cause.
What can be done, though, for others who don’t march to a messianic drum-beat? Well, as I said, no-one is ever in any doubt as to who is briefing – and why. But in the end, those in the life – and in the know – just shrug and move on. There’s internal gossip, but precious little being held to account. Why do they do it? Because they can, and because they get away with it.