The immediate cause of the resignation has been press speculation that he leaked the details of Peter Mandelson's loan from Geoffrey Robinson: but his departure is more significant than one official being caught out in the game of "spin". Mr Whelan was not just a press secretary. He was the Chancellor's general aide-de-camp and propagandist. The Chancellor's independent power base has become the problem, whether or not Mr Whelan has done wrong. There is a suspicion that the messenger is being shot, albeit a rather maverick one.
Coincidentally, correspondence between Mr Brown and Mr Mandelson has surfaced in the press, dating from the time of John Smith's death. Whatever its real source, the suspicion was bound to arise that Mr Brown or his staff had released it to damage Mr Mandelson. His well known hurt at not securing the Labour leadership means that whenever his rivals are damaged by media speculation, the finger of suspicion will inevitably point at him.
Mr Brown can continue to nurse his desire to be prime minister. But if he is seen to be doing so with his own alternative court centred around No 11, the damage to the Government will increase. Mr Whelan's departure will not change this, since he would not have done anything major without permission from his boss; it was the Chancellor's wish to eliminate opposition that led to the quarrel with Mr Mandelson in the first place.
It is no good the Government complaining that the media has become "obsessed" with ministerial personalities. This is a real story. When the poison of bitter rivalry enters the Cabinet bloodstream, past experience shows that government can disintegrate. Margaret Thatcher was eventually brought down by the hatred she attracted by bullying ministers such as Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson.
Voters care about education, the economy and health care, not the minutiae of presentation, so New Labour's reliance on "spinners" was always going to land it in trouble. Everything that once seemed admirable about their media strategy is falling to pieces, with what seemed like skill now seen as manipulation. This is worse because Mr Blair and his advisers seem to rely on a network of old friends to do their work. There seems no sign that this will change; yesterday the Prime Minister appointed his old friend Lord Falconer to oversee the Millennium Dome.
Ideological differences have abated since the dark years of continual Labour feuding, but that very lack of divisive issues makes their rivalry all the more bitter. With no prospect of unilateral nuclear disarmament or nationalisation to argue over, Labour ministers are left to brief against each other's private lives.
Mr Blair may believe that this storm will abate, and plan to promote young Blairites such as Stephen Byers to deny Mr Brown's hopes of succeeding to the leadership, or to divide and rule his Cabinet. If so, he is mistaken. The time taken to establish credible leadership contenders would be spent in perpetual feuding.
The Chancellor's performance itself is on the whole admirable, while Labour's high opinion poll ratings demonstrate that its economic policies are popular. But the personal relationship between a prime minister and chancellor is also vital. This spin doctor's resignation raises hopes that Mr Brown may mend his ways, proving that he can act more responsibly. The hope must be that this is the first sign that the Government is turning away from "spin", and towards grown-up politics.Reuse content