Thanks to Damian McBride and Derek Draper, whom I like to think of as the Dick Dastardly and Mutley of British politics, I have had to abort my Easter plans. You see, I was their first victim. Before I explain how, let's rewind a few months.
Last October I met Draper for lunch. I really should have known it would end in tears, but he held a strange fascination for me. I remember writing him a short note after his fall from grace over the Lobbygate scandal in 1998. I didn't know him well, but I am a sucker for someone on their uppers and wanted to wish him well. Ten years on, he wanted to pick my blogging brain as he intended to launch an internet blog. Over lunch, I explained to him patiently the pitfalls of the internet. Indeed, I had to be very patient indeed as his knowledge of online matters was only slightly superior to that of my 78-year-old mother, who has never touched a computer in her life.
Three months later he launched LabourList to much media fanfare. At last, so the pundits wrote, there would be some competition for Right-of-centre blogs such as Guido Fawkes, ConservativeHome and my own. But then it all went wrong for Draper. He ignored every bit of well-intentioned advice he was given. His blog authors all came from his contacts book. The site contained few articles that could not have been written in Labour Party HQ, and there was precious little grassroots input. He was accused of censoring comments and using the site as a vehicle for his own giant-sized ego.
As LabourList started to tank, he looked for help elsewhere. And he set his sights on Damian McBride, the Prime Minister's Director of Strategy.
McBride was Gordon Brown's licensed pitbull. Like most Labour spin merchants, he liked nothing more than sinking his fangs into Conservatives; he relished confrontation. He was to Brown what Alastair Campbell was to Blair, and he seemed not to care whom he offended in the process. Talk to any Westminster journalist and they will have a gory tale about the man they call "McPoison".
McBride revelled in making enemies, conveniently forgetting the maxim that all those who you offend on the way up are unlikely to come to your aid on the way down. He didn't just brief against Conservatives, he would slag off anyone he felt wasn't totally loyal to Gordon Brown – and that meant anyone who could reasonably be described as a Blairite. Many a minister felt his wrath – not directly, but through the pages of a national newspaper.
Health Minister Ivan Lewis, who spoke out injudiciously, suddenly found text messages to a woman who was not his wife plastered all over a Sunday tabloid. Transport Minister Tom Harris, who committed the cardinal sin of being a Blairite and an entertaining blogger, found himself dispatched to the back benches after being overheard at the Labour Party conference by McBride and his Downing Street acolyte Tom Watson saying something less than flattering about the Dear Leader.
No second chances, you see. It explains why former Home Secretary Charles Clarke was so willing to put the boot in on Saturday and demand McBride's scalp.
Over the past two days, it has been said that McBride should have had better things to do than indulge in political assassination. There's an economy to save, after all. But political assassination is exactly what he does. He is not a foreign affairs or economy adviser. He is a political boot-boy whose function was to work on the PM's behalf, which is why it is a bit rich for Brown now to pretend he is shocked to discover what McBride got up to. Brown wrote McBride's job description and left him to get on with it. As ye sow, so ye shall reap.
In early February I appeared on the Today programme to talk about Carol Thatcher's use of the word "golliwog". I wasn't there to defend it and I didn't. But I tried to explain how a 55-year-old woman with her background would use the word without necessarily thinking it would
My reward? To be branded a racist sympathiser by Draper on his blog. My first reaction was to laugh. But as it went round and round in my head, I got angry. And so started a minor blog war, which drove many extra readers to Draper's site.
A few weeks later, I was told that the whole thing had been dreamt up in Downing Street as a way to "get Dale" and destroy my reputation as one of Britain's leading bloggers. I was told that McBride had sent an email to Derek Draper giving him his marching orders on how to smear me. Indeed, it has been suggested that McBride wrote the poisonous blog?post himself.
I then bumped into Draper towards the end of March, following an unedifying appearance he had just made on the BBC Daily Politics programme alongside my fellow blogger Guido Fawkes. He wanted to let bygones be bygones.
"What about these emails?" I asked.
"They don't exist," he lied.
"I can't have personal or business relationships with anyone who calls me a racist and thinks they can get away with it," I said, and walked off.
It was then that I decided to put in a Freedom of Information Request into the Cabinet Office to try to get a copy of the email. Out of courtesy, I emailed McBride and copied in Draper to tell them what I was doing. That request is still being processed.
Some may see this as a schoolboy spat between two bloggers with egos the size of a mountain. Maybe. But my experience is important as it demonstrates how the Number Ten lie machine will target anyone whose reputation it wishes to damage. I'm in a position to fight back, but what about the dozens of journalists who have to accept the bullying for fear of being ostracised and never getting another story; or the dozens of MPs and ministers who know that to speak out is to invite career disaster?
Perhaps this sort of affair is symptomatic of something more deep-rooted at the heart of government. All administrations flag after a while. They become gaffe- prone. People go off-message more frequently. A sense of malaise is almost palpable. It's what happens when empires crumble. A bunker mentality sets in and the leader encourages the wagons to circle. It took 11 years for it to happen to Margaret Thatcher, but with Gordon Brown it has taken less than two.
When you're a leader in trouble you turn to those whose undying loyalty you know you can count on. That's why Brown was reluctant to let McBride go last September after he had been found briefing against Ruth Kelly. Instead of firing him, he moved him sideways and out of direct contact with the media. But at the same time he brought back his old ally Charlie Whelan.
Whelan is now political officer for the giant Unite union, and he funds Draper's website. It was he who persuaded Geoffrey Robinson, the co-proprietor of the New Statesman, to dispense with the services of the magazine's award-winning political editor Martin Bright, who was considered not onside with Brown. Whelan was also copied in on McBride's emails to Draper as he had agreed to fund the new Red Ragblog which was to play host to the smears about Tory politicians. I suspect there is far more about to emerge about Whelan's pivotal role at the heart of the Brown empire.
If Gordon Brown really wants to bring about a new era at Downing Street, he can do several things – take away Alastair Campbell's pass which gives him free access to the building; reshuffle Tom Watson out of Number Ten; but most significantly of all, tell Derek Draper his services as editor of LabourList are no longer required.
The trouble is, our Prime Minister is wedded to the notion that seeking political conflict and dividing lines is the be all and end all. And he's incapable of changing.