Julia's master of spin
The fixer ... John McTernan watched Prime Minister Julia Gillard handle a press conference. Photo: Penny Bradfield
"Pity John McTernan,'' Britain's The Guardian newspaper says. Why would ''one of the smartest brains of the New Labour years in Britain'' - a survivor of the Blair/Brown battle for Downing Street - move to Australia as Julia Gillard's chief spin-meister to watch a labour party tear itself apart all over again?
''Pity John McTernan?!'' Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke, cup of tea in hand, lets out her trademark hearty laugh. We are with our backs to the River Thames in the House of Lords. Outside, the river is a ribbon of silver, not its usual muddy self at all. Spring is in the air and the MPs and peers at Westminster are about to disperse for the Easter break.
I learnt the hard way that you can't call people idiots.
''John was brought up in the Scottish Labour Party, which makes the ALP look easy,'' Baroness Liddell, Tony Blair's former minister of state for Scotland and minister for trade and industry, says.
John McTernan was cruicial to Tony Blair's re-election plans. Photo: Getty Images
''We have a saying - 'Ah kent his faither [I knew his father]' - which really means, 'and he has no reason to get above himself'. We all have to deal with that in Scotland. If you can cope with that, then you're tough. John had the bottle to tell Tony what was wrong. We had been there nine years, there was need for development of a new narrative … he is brilliant at defining differences and very good at attack lines.''
Mention McTernan, 53, to any member of Team Blair and they will all preface a description with those words - clear thinker and tough. Chat to friends and they will portray a gregarious character, passionate about politics and social policy, music and good red wine - and not always in that order. Even the odd Tory mate from way back will begrudgingly admit that McTernan's a good operator, a prodigious networker and good company to boot.
But ask an opinion in some other quarters - the British and Scottish trade union movement, for instance - and it can be a different story.
''All I can say is, god help the Australian Labor Party,'' a veteran union leader and former chairman of the Scottish Labour Party, Bob Thomson, says.
Another, who chose to remain anonymous, says: ''Oh, he can make enemies; f---, can he make enemies.'' There is one point, however, on which McTernan's friends - and political foes - are unanimous: in battle, he's ferocious and the man you want on your side.
This week, as factional bosses and restless Labor MPs warned that Gillard's job could be on the line again - and Tuesday's budget will be a critical test - the man seconded from Britain to repackage and resell the Prime Minister to the nation was instead trying to limit the fallout from disastrous political appointments made before his tenure.
Staring into the political abyss, colleagues say - and helping Labor pull back - is what makes his adrenalin flow. ''If you get to senior positions, you have to be able to kill your opponents,'' he says. ''It is not pretty, it's not pleasant, but if those at the top can't kill, then those at the bottom certainly cannot. High politics demands very low political skills, too.''
John McTernan was born in London in 1959, the eldest of seven children. His father, Alan, was a university lecturer in mathematics and active both in the local party and the labour movement, becoming president of the British teachers' union.
The family moved to Scotland in 1963 when McTernan snr was appointed to teach at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, later establishing the computer sciences department. John, who still recycles his dad's old computer punch-cards as bookmarks, says he attended a ''rough as guts'' high school, becoming the first of its students to choose to study English at Edinburgh University.
At university, he threw himself into debating, honing his self-confidence. He's still imbued with startling aplomb and in conversation can note with an utterly straight face that there are ''many other people as brilliant as me, just not as many as confident at saying it''.
The lure of grassroots politics, however, came via his move to London in 1984. He settled in the less-than-salubrious south-east of the city, in a house on the border between working-class, troubled Peckham and the now highly gentrified and fashionable East Dulwich, and organised locally for Labour. Two years later, in 1986, he was elected to Southwark Council, one of the biggest and most economically diverse of London's inner boroughs, where just one-third of its quarter of a million people own their own homes and a fifth of ratepayers are African.
Baroness Sally Morgan, Blair's minister for women and later director of government relations at No.10 Downing Street, met McTernan in the early 1980s during his Southwark days and says he is ''very much the reformer, still very committed to improving local development, devoted to his local area''.
McTernan is known to reminisce with as much alacrity about his eight years on the council and the myriad local battles fought to preserve and improve the local area - from mobilising local shopkeepers against a big supermarket and the creation of a local street market - as he does about Downing Street.
Baroness Ford of Cunninghame, in the House of Lords since 2006, is a businesswoman, a specialist in urban regeneration and chairwoman of the Olympic Park Legacy Company, the body responsible for the long-term development and management of London's Olympic Park and its venues after the Games. She describes McTernan as an original thinker: ''He will constantly surprise you with unexpected ideas but there is always a logic to what he does.''
McTernan made the jump to national politics in 1995 when he joined the staff of then-Peckham MP Harriet Harman and became her policy adviser two years later when Blair's New Labour stormed the Tories in 1997 and won government.
The euphoria would not last long. Heady with reform fever, the tyro Labour government launched a plan to restructure the welfare sector, embarking on a catastrophic decision to clobber lone parents - 4 million of them - and cut their benefits. It turned into a political debacle and Blair was forced into a humiliating backdown. Harman, the social security minister in the middle of it, was dumped in a cabinet reshuffle.
McTernan lost his job and spent the next few years back in local politics before a brief foray into the Scottish Parliament that ended when his boss, the Scottish first minister Henry McLeish, quit after having been found to have sublet part of his taxpayer-funded Westminster apartment without stating it on the interests register.
He was out of a job again, turning to the media and writing columns and political analysis for The Daily Telegraph in London and The Scotsman, as well as working as a consultant on projects ranging from a civil service management program to flying in and out of Baghdad to write the transitional Iraqi government's manifesto.
Going to work in a helicopter gunship with US Navy SEAL escorts, the adrenalin of landing in a dust storm and travelling some of the most dangerous roads in the world in armed convoy remains one of the most thrilling periods of his professional life. He's fond of recalling one particularly loud explosion and the black humour of a veteran British colleague who reassured him, saying: ''Don't worry, they're f---ing crap and can't fire a mortar to save their lives. The IRA would have had the place flattened … they won't get a third one off before a drone kills 'em.''
In the end, however, the lack of salary security had started to weigh heavily when, out of the blue, a phone call came from Tony Blair's office as they prepared for the 2005 election. Blair wanted a team of fresh thinkers to work on Labour's electoral manifesto and invited McTernan aboard to work on his pet passions - housing and urban regeneration policy. The opportunity was too good to pass up.
If there is a theme to McTernan's career path, it's reinvention in the wake of political drama. Supporters say it's a sign of his tenacity, optimism and strength of character. Detractors insist that in the past two decades he's been close to one too many political disasters - and there's another one on the way with Julia Gillard.
''Now he's become Mr Australia, convinced them all he is brilliant and there's no one there to say the opposite … he's actually made some rubbish decisions but he's great at self-publicity,'' a former colleague says. Secondment to Downing Street would turn out to be the most professionally fulfilling - if personally dramatic - time of McTernan's life. New Labour had entered its final, most troubled chapter, a scenario not dissimilar to that facing him in Gillard's office.
The then-chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, was at that point actively destabilising behind the scenes despite Blair's public signal in 2006 that he would step down within the year. The turmoil helped dry up Labour's finances and, in 2006, what became known as a ''cash for peerages scandal'' erupted when a Scottish MP and a Welsh MP made a formal complaint alleging the sale of honours in return for donations.
In the end, the Crown Prosecution Service brought no charges, but the investigation was hugely damaging. Arrests were made at dawn and every time a high-profile person was brought in for questioning - including McTernan - details were leaked beforehand to the journalists, photographers and TV cameras that lay in wait. The investigation lasted 18 months. Labor did not cut anyone adrift, but for McTernan - until then also quietly aspiring to preselection for a seat and a parliamentary career - another door was closed.
McTernan is reluctant but finally agrees to meet during a flying Easter holiday visit to London to see the family. He chooses a bustling wine bar near his home in East Dulwich and arrives, short and wiry and bespectacled, looking more London than Canberra, well rugged up in funky scarf and dark overcoat, ubiquitous BlackBerry in hand.
During our chat he is, by turns, charming, funny, opinionated, politically astute and, to put it politely, staggeringly self-confident.
He is adamant we talk only about the past - his background and family, university days, career ups and downs and the old stamping grounds in Southwark. Everything else is off-limits. But he's unfazed by others - friend or foe - talking about him and even mentions an exceedingly unflattering piece about him in Private Eye.
As a political staffer, he's clearly no procrastinator, believing ''a quick no is the second-best answer''. Professionally, he sees himself as a communicator but differentiates between what he does and press secretaries, saying it is ''ideas I like … I like the relationships, being with people; hate being bored''.
On his time in Southwark, he says: ''I learnt you can be the cleverest person in the room - and I was by miles - but you still have to win the votes. I learnt the hard way that you can't call people idiots.''
Baroness Liddell, as a former minister and British High Commissioner to Australia between 2005 and 2009, understands British Labour politics, as well as the ALP, better than most. She believes McTernan, her guest in Canberra in 2009, and Gillard are a good fit, particularly at a time of political difficulty: ''Australian factional politics reminds of the early 1990s in Britain before the New Labour phenomenon. The fundamental thing is that voters do not like divided parties. This is something that John knows better than most. Look at what happened with Howard and Costello, look at the Tories and their division over Europe. It is in McTernan's DNA, that knowledge that to be successful, the party must be united.''
It shouldn't be forgotten that McTernan has visited Australia 14 times and worked on the 2007 federal election campaign and with various state governments. Former South Australian premier Mike Rann is a fan: ''I think he is one of the sharpest political, as well as policy, brains I know. He's got a way of getting to the nub of a problem and crystallising messages to help explain complex policy issues.''
The General Secretary of the NSW ALP, Sam Dastyari, is another great supporter: ''He brings a maturing experience to the PM's office. John calls them the greybeards, the people he's brought in who have cool heads and long experience.''
Talking to Australian party and union leaders McTernan's biggest influence seemed to be focused on the psychological, trying to impart a shard of hope to a demoralised and pessimistic political team. He has tried to recast Australia for them through a global lens.
But this can open unexpected pitfalls. Questions remain about why Gillard's staff took so long to inform her fully about the Australia Day ''Shoegate'' kerfuffle and her own press secretary's role in tipping off protesters. McTernan, veteran observers say, simply didn't understand the ferocity or the lack of diversity of Australian media.
One insider says: ''This is not a country where you have eight and more major dailies playing off each other, where The Guardian or something else will balance the Standard. This is a tiny media market, if you piss off the Tele, the Oz, 2GB you are f---ed. He underestimated the media and just how small it is.''
To the outsider, it seems almost bizarre that the government is so desperately in the doldrums when Australia is the only developed country with unemployment at less than 5 per cent and has an economy that's escaped relatively unscathed from the financial crisis. McTernan won't discuss the problems but his views are well known around Canberra. He's not seen around the gallery much but his fingerprints can often be read in the work of key commentators. The mishandling of issues such as the carbon tax have infuriated him and the mantra now is that the government not only set the reform agenda but the terms of the public discussion. McTernan spruiks the upbeat economic backdrop as the central plank of Gillard's narrative - a picture of Australia seen internationally as a stable, safe economic haven in times of global crisis. Tony Abbott, he's warned, is an odd opponent, ''awful on the economy, great on values''.
And, yes, he believes Gillard can win. As he told a colleague: ''After the ALP gets re-elected, the next step is to save the United Kingdom and defeat Alex Salmond in the general referendum.''
A tough job to keep them calm and carry on
Late last year, John McTernan had some fighting words for Ed Miliband, the British Labour leader battling to redefine the party and stave off speculation about his leadership.
''His task is to ignore the party and inspire the country,'' McTernan wrote in one of his last columns for The Daily Telegraph in London, before he joined Julia Gillard's staff as director of communications.
The advice could hardly be more true for the person McTernan now refers to as ''The Boss''.
When McTernan joined Gillard's staff last November, he had been freelancing in Australia on and off since 2007 and was fresh from a stint as ''thinker in residence'' for the then-South Australian premier, Mike Rann.
McTernan's strategy has been to try and keep the Prime Minister looking like a prime minister.
Gillard reduced media and public appearances, reserving them for important policy announcements, discussions and community engagement.
McTernan's job is not so much day-to-day media management and monitoring, though he does do some of that, but to keep the government's message on track.
If that means yelling at journalists, backbenchers or ministers who stray, McTernan is more than happy to oblige.
He relishes his potty-mouthed, hard-man reputation and invites comparisons to Malcolm Tucker, the spin doctor at the heart of the cult BBC series The Thick of It.
Part of McTernan's strategy was that respect for the office of Prime Minister needed to be rebuilt after a year in which protesters had used terms such as ''witch'' and ''bitch'' to describe Gillard.
But the strategy has collided with an extraordinarily rocky time that began with a speech to the Labor Party national conference that inflamed leadership tensions, before moving on to the ditching of a deal with independent MP Andrew Wilkie on pokies, the Australia Day fracas, her trouncing of Kevin Rudd in a leadership ballot and renewed leadership speculation following Gillard's management of the Speaker, Peter Slipper, and the now independent MP Craig Thomson.
Through all of this, it has been hard to keep Gillard out of the spotlight.
It is increasingly difficult for Gillard and her team to ignore the party and get on with inspiring the country.