Blair/Brown poison flows in Brighton

Damian McBride's political memoirs has come at an awkward time for the Labour leadership. Matthew Partridge reports.

Labour's party conference in Brighton this week was overshadowed by the publication of Damian McBride's memoirs. The book by Gordon Brown's former special adviser, which has been extensively serialised in the Daily Mail, claims that he tried to ruin the careers of several Blairite heavy-hitters, including Charles Clarke and John Reid, through damaging briefings.

McBride also "admitted tipping off the media about drug use, spousal abuse, alcoholism and extramarital affairs". These memoirs are "acutely awkward for Mr Miliband and Mr Balls", says the FT's Jim Pickard, because both men served under Gordon Brown for over a decade.

"This is not usually how political memoirs work," writes Iain Martin in The Daily Telegraph. Most usually "turn out to be exercises in self-justification". Even when interviewed about the financial crisis, only a few bankers "gave any indication that they were morally troubled by their part in what had happened". However, McBride admits that he did terrible things and "allowed himself to become morally bankrupt".

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Indeed, he almost "adopts the tone of the confessional". This unusual approach is refreshing and admirable, and "for all his flaws, [McBride] has clearly thought deeply about such subjects".

It is difficult to know "which aspect of McBridegate is the most reprehensible", writes Simon Kelner in The Independent, "the book itself, or the protestations of innocence that have attended it".

Far from wanting to make amends for his past misdeeds, the main reason McBride wrote it "was to earn a few quid". But "using proximity to power as a means of self-aggrandisement" is, at the very least, "dubious". All the book does is weaken public faith in the political process.

The McBride affair demonstrates the dangers of relying on "inexperienced, fiercely tribal and young" advisers, argues former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe in the Daily Express. Many wield enormous power and influence. However, while they may be extraordinarily intelligent, they "forget that they have never achieved anything important in their own right".

This is worrying for those who "believe that wise heads and sturdy experience inform the decisions which govern our lives". The power of such advisers should be tempered by the experience of "quieter elders".

"There's no excuse for some of the things Damian McBride did," says The Daily Telegraph's Dan Hodges. But criticism of his actions is nave. The Blair/Brown poison "flowed both ways".The Blairites were not political innocents: Clarke, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson were "ruthless political streetfighters" capable of turning on the enemy within.

While there is idealism in politics, the engine room of state can be "a car crash of power and ambition and jealousy and hope and pride and bravery and cowardice and triumph and failure". The public must realise the world of politics is "populated by ordinary men and women, with all the flaws that implies".

'Red Ed's got his mojo back'

Other pledges include lowering the voting age to 16, reversing NHS reforms and axeing housing benefit cuts for council tenants with unused rooms (the so-called 'bedroom tax').

"If political success were measured in conference speeches, Ed Miliband would be on the home straight," says Seumas Milne in The Guardian. He's "recast discredited New Labour politics and broken with failed economic orthodoxy".

The speech challenges "the corrosive conviction that politics can make no difference to the living standards crisis presided over by David Cameron".

Certainly, "New Labour is well and truly over", writes Allister Heath in City AM. Not only does Miliband "not want the support of business groups", but he plans to "regulate them much more heavily, tax them more harshly and dictate to them who they can and cannot hire and how much they can pay them".

But some of the ideas, such as energy price caps, "have been tried thousands of times throughout history in hundreds of different markets and always fail". His irresponsible plans are "right out of a 1970s playbook".

The speech has "sharpened the Labour versus Conservative dividing line, sketching a real election choice," says the Daily Mirror's Kevin Maguire. Cameron now risks falling "into the trap of defending hated commercial interests".Lower energy prices and more houses are crowd-pleasers.

Of course, "the hope One Nation Labour is offering the electorate isn't yet the full picture". However, it is clear that "Red Ed's got his mojo back".

Miliband certainly wooed the party faithful, says The Independent. But it "remains to be seen" whether it will boost Labour's chances. These twin crusades risk alienating swing voters, because "for some land appropriation and [energy] price controls will be too much of a lurch to the left".

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri