Can the PM afford to be seen next to Watson & McBride?
Many voters will never have heard of Damien McBride and Tom Watson before today. Few could give their job titles, or explain their relationship to the Prime Minister. Nadine Dorries demanding apologies, and Charles Clarke insisting that McBride should resign could become a Westminster Village story if Downing Street manages to keep to the line that McBride and Watson were acting independently of the PM, and that he had no knowledge of the activities.
Unfortunately for Downing Street, the most famous photo of
the three men Tom Watson with the PM has Brown sat at a desk with McBride and Watson in conversation directly next to him. The voting public might struggle to connect the Cabinet Office’s Minister for Digital Engagement with a Special Advisor to the PM, but they will recognise that you tend to know what is happening at the desk next to you.
Ultimately, this story isn’t going to be about what Brown knew or didn’t know – I cannot believe that McBride and Watson would have risked making him privy to their correspondance – but rather what the public suspect that Brown knew. If it seems plausible that he would be involved in this smear campaign, actually having no technical knowledge of it will not be enough. The court of public opinion, as Harriet Harman QC has reminded us, is supreme even when it is wrong.
If Downing Street are trying to distance Watson and McBride from the PM, and make them seem like vigilante outsiders, this is precisely the photo I suspect they wouldn’t want to be seen. All day, we’ve had comparisons between Brown and Richard Nixon – I don’t think they are comparable, but remember the reason Nixon gave for resigning was not based on anything that he had done wrong, but rather for fostering an environment in which his aides did not see anything wrong in what they were doing. By that logic, the Prime Minister will need to act fast if this story is to be shut down.
UPDATE Apologies – I thought the man talking to Watson was Damien McBride whereas I am now informed it is Cabinet Office Minister Liam Byrne. Story corrected 14:53.