Cheltenham Literature Festival: Alan Johnson weighs in on Damian McBride scandal
The spectre of Gordon Brown’s former spin doctor, Damian McBride, loomed large over Town Hall as Alan Johnson, the former Home Secretary, weighed in on the merits of government special advisers.
A panel consisting of Mr Johnson, the former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell and the Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude convened for a Cheltenham Literature Festival debate on reforming the civil service.
And it didn’t take long for Mr McBride’s name, the man who recently published a book detailing his use of the “dark arts” of leaking and smearing government ministers, to crop up.
Mr Johnson said: "All governments start off saying they will reduce the number of Spads (special advisers). But what all governments find is that they are a very important part of the machine."
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However, Mr Johnson said Spads who focus solely on trying to make their bosses look "superhuman" are simply not doing their job properly.
Mr McBride started his career in the civil service before being appointed as a special adviser to Gordon Brown.
Lord O’Donnell, who occupied the highest role in the civil service between 2005 and 2011, condemned Mr McBride’s actions.
“Damian McBride did not act as a civil servant,” he said. “He was briefing against other ministers and that is inappropriate.
"I had to say to Gordon Brown that he could not carry on doing it. So he (McBride) resigned and then was appointed as a Spad.
"I do think it is important that Spads make a point of saying ‘my job is to help the government’.
"The bad side is when they think their job is to boost their minister's profile at the expense of other ministers."
Mr Johnson also took the opportunity to comment on the relationship between ministers as elected officials and the civil service.
He said the way things should work is that the minister gets the praise when things go well but also gets “canned” when things go wrong.
He said ministers who blame the civil service publicly for government errors are “despicable”.
The former Home Secretary also told the audience the story of how he became Higher Education Minister.
"I was driving over the Humber Bridge and Tony Blair called me and said 'I want you to be the Higher Education minister',” he said.
"I told him ‘but I have never been to university’.
“He said 'exactly'."