John McTernan: Campbell Gunn forgot golden rule

Clare Lally was targeted by cybernats for supporting Better Together. Picture: PA
Clare Lally was targeted by cybernats for supporting Better Together. Picture: PA
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A mother targeted, a national treasure vilified; Campbell Gunn stands at the centre of a perfect storm. He’s on 
his way,

Remember when Alastair Campbell left No 10? It wasn’t because of what he’d done, but because he’d “become the story”. It seems as old-fashioned as Crichel Down, doesn’t it (you know, the last time a government minister took responsibility for the actions of their staff rather than blaming their own department for their own failures). Just now in St Andrew’s House we have the spectacle of Campbell Gunn, a very senior communications adviser to Alex Salmond, clinging to his job with all the limpet-like tenacity of the disgraced culture secretary Maria Miller. This changed world prompts a range of questions.

For one, who, what and why are special advisers (SpAds)? Simply put, they are political appointments to ministerial offices. Dating back to the Wilson government, their job was created in acknowledgement that the cabinet ministers are politicians and will need political support that a neutral civil service cannot give them. All relatively uncontroversial, and a system that works pretty well almost all of the time.

The most difficult and most exposed position is that of the media advisers for ambitious ministers. Here, the multiplicity of news outlets – both free to air and 24-hour news channels – has led to a much greater pressure.

I remember David, now Lord, Lipsey telling me that when he was a special adviser to Anthony Crosland, one of Labour’s post-war giants, getting on the Today programme once a month was a triumph. That, of course, was not just before Sky News and BBC News 24, but it was also a time when there was no Channel 4, Newsnight or breakfast news. Nowadays, one outing a month would engender “relevance deprivation” even in the shadow secretary of state for cemeteries and tramways. But here’s the rub, no-one gets into the media with a “good-news” story – it’s conflict that gets reported. This is what fuels the drip-feed of leaks and briefings.

For another, whose will is being done? When Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary – and a career civil servant to boot – described John Biffen as a semi-detached member of the cabinet, Biffen’s response was brilliantly acerbic.

Ingham, he said, was the “sewer not sewage”. That, in the end, is true of every spinner. Nothing is done which is not their master (or mistress’s) will. That is why there is an elaborate pantomime when bad behaviour is found out.

Look down south. In a unique breach of the Civil Service code, the ministerial code and the code of conduct for special advisers, a Home Office SpAd published a piece of ministerial correspondence on the departmental website.

One’s first thought was “what chutzpah”. One’s second was “how stupid”. One’s third was “when will she be sacked?” And, of course, all three were right. But Fiona Cunningham, for that was Theresa May’s SpAd, walked the plank – though only after she was impelled onward by the Prime Minister himself.

It is a sign of the times that even staffers think they can wait out the media cycle, hoping – as indeed do their ministers – that they can survive. This is the position of Campbell Gunn, and his boss – we always call them “Boss” – are in. They want the storm to pass – and hope it will.

Two things weigh against them. First, timing – in politics, as in life, this is all. No-one on the Yes side could have predicted when JK Rowling would come out for No. (Their strategists should, of course, have anticipated it would happen at some point.) They should have anticipated that their cybernat base would go tonto – and they should have tried to exert some restraint and discipline.

This was not a case of the run of the mill abuse an Anas Sarwar or a Jim Murphy gets for doing their job. It was misogynistic bile thrown at a national treasure who is also an international superstar. Politics is a rough old game, and those of us for whom it is a career put up with more unpleasantness than adult human beings should.

Our friends and family feel hard done by on our behalf but we shrug our shoulders and move on. And those who abuse think it is acceptable feel affirmed and believe that the boundary has been pushed a little further.

Like extremists everywhere they push and push, believing in their righteousness. Then suddenly they hit a public target – one who is loved and respected – and suddenly they are condemned. Rightly condemned, yet they are surprised, shocked yet not defensive. The life they live – abusing others anonymously – is how they think life is.

This is the perfect storm at the centre of which Gunn finds himself. Much of politics is grubby, but it is for noble ambitions – the end forgives, if it does not justify, the means. But Gunn broke two basic rules. Never attack a mother – especially a carer for a child with disabilities. And, irrelevant to the real world, but pre-eminent for the “life” – he got caught. I am not being Jesuitical, nor am I saying there but for the grace of God, all I know is that the first rule of SpAd Club is: Don’t Get Caught.

It is, in the end, why he will go. Deniability is the central purpose of staffing. Don’t ask, don’t tell, in a way. More accurately, as Gordon Brown said: “I give the licence, not the order.” Or at least his fictional persona does in Kevin Toolis’ chillingly accurate Confessions of Gordon Brown. Campbell Gunn knew his email would unleash the dogs against Clare Lally.

He sent it anyway, and she was attacked in a disgusting manner. He knew it was what Alex Salmond wanted. Did he ask the First Minister? He didn’t need to, he knew. Indeed, had he needed to ask he shouldn’t have been in his job.

Feeling queasy? You should be. A little bit of real politics has bubbled up in front of you. It’s your choice – walk by on the other side, or demand a change.