The Saturday Profile: Amanda Platell, Conservative Party Press Secretary: The new woman in Hague's life
Origins: Born in 1957 in Perth, Australia. Mother (Norma) was a secretary, and father (Frank) a journalist. Two brothers
Education: Honours Degree in Politics and Philosophy, from the University of Western Australia
Vital statistics: Once married to the journalist John Chenery. No children. Two cats
Previous career: Sub-editor, Today; features editor, London Daily News; deputy editor, Today; managing director, The Independent; acting editor, Sunday Mirror; editor, Sunday Express
Her novel: Scandal, to be published in June by Piatkus, is said by its publishers to be "a sexy, scandalous, and utterly authentic expose of the world of journalism"
She says: "The important thing is not to behave like an honorary man. We compete as individuals and one of the most important aspects of me is that I'm a woman"
THE WORD "feisty" wilts when it meets William Hague's new press secretary, Amanda Platell, a gregarious Australian described by one former colleague as "not so much a person as a life force". Platell, 41, has had a thrills-and-spills journalistic career with an accompanying tendency to emerge from the intermittent disastrous scenarios of Fleet Street smelling of roses. It must be her innate optimism that has led her to take on the task of selling Hague to an electorate that has decided it is not even interested in inspecting the wares.
Central Office may also be hoping that two of Platell's enmities from her days in journalism - towards Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson - will invest her performance with extra zeal. As an executive of Mirror Group newspapers, she appointed a group political editor over Campbell, sparking his resignation. He has been scathing about her appointment.
Last year, during a short-lived stint as editor of the Express on Sunday, she had a spiky dinner-table encounter with Mandelson during the Labour Conference in Blackpool. After Mandelson had replied to her taunts with some sarcasm, she hurled a half-eaten boiled sweet at the then Trade and Industry minister. Mandelson picked up the sweet, covered in carpet fluff, and wordlessly placed it back in front of her. Their enmity was sealed.
Shortly afterwards, Platell's Sunday paper ran a snatched picture of a male Brazilian friend of Mandelson's and he protested vehemently against the intrusion. In the fall-out, Platell was sacked. She blames Mandelson for demanding her head from the editor-in-chief, Rosie Boycott. Boycott insists that Mandelson made no intervention and that the decision to replace Platell was taken for internal reasons.
Platell was a popular editor at the Express on Sunday. She won over sceptical male journalists with a winning manner and round-the-clock flirting. She is excellent at making people do things they had no intention of doing. Within a few weeks she had installed in her office a chart with the names of her closest team on it, and would bound up in the middle of conference to draw a large heart beside someone who had come up with a particularly good idea or performed well. This is the kind of trick that has to be done with great charm if it is not to appear excruciating.
She met Hague only a few months ago and they struck up a mutual liking. Accusations that she is not a Tory, having taken Labour briefings when at The Mirror and allegedly made a pro-European speech while at the Express on Sunday, are beside the point. She will view her new job selling Hague with the same go-for-it spirit that she has brought to a variety of newspaper jobs. The idea of a high-profile, uphill task with a six-figure salary, keeping her in the limelight and bringing her head to head with Campbell (the two will sit at opposite ends of the press gallery at Prime Minister's Questions every week) must have been irresistible.
The classless Platell is not a political person, beyond the ritualised tribal spats of newspaper politics. Her instincts are lower-mid-market: the Mandelson-friend expose was an odd risk for the editor of a loyal New Labour paper to take. To that extent, she steered towards her own destruction as an editor. A former colleague at the Express on Sunday says: "She doesn't have ideological beliefs. But the bruising experience with Mandelson and realising how determined New Labour were to get rid of her has probably made her feel more sympathetic to the Tories."
The most frequent early response to her appointment - replacing Gregor Mackay, a well-liked young Scottish official who failed to burnish Hague's reputation - has been that Platell is merely a symbol of the Tories' desperation. But Mr Hague has thought long, hard and - until this week - secretively about his party's media doldrums and concluded that the Tory party is failing to get its message across because it is concentrating too heavily on the traditional channels of newspaper political editors and the Today programme, while ignoring the vast expansion in women's magazines, television talk shows and politics as entertainment. "We still have the same basic media strategy as we had in 1963," admits one insider. "We have been trying to counter with traditional means a Government which works and communicates in very untraditional ways."
Tony Blair has long courted the favourable opinion of women's magazines and is as likely to have the editor of Marie Claire to dinner as an eminent lobby correspondent. Hague is determined to follow suit. He is well aware that his own image is staid. The odd interview in a broadsheet telling the readers that poor William is really quite nice when you get to know him, hasn't redressed things. Platell's appeal is precisely that she does not dwell in political London, and that her contacts range throughout the tabloids and into the high-selling women's magazines.
Hague is determined to reach out to the same all-important C1s and C2s Blair has targeted as the key to electoral success. He also knows that he is losing the battle of the sexes and that his party needs to restore its appeal to women. Platell will soften his image and build a loyal team. "But Amanda's loyalty can be blind," says one former colleague. "She will have to be pretty tough in that job to sort out the useless from the useful around Hague."
One condition set by Platell for taking the job is said to be an assurance that Ffion Hague - a strong supporter of the appointment - is prepared to play a higher-profile role as the election approaches. Expect a number of articles on the home life of the Hagues, Ffion's family plans and the trials of juggling a job and running a home, in the magazines at your supermarket check-out any day soon.
How she will cope with the stodgier traditions of Tory life will be amusing to behold. "Oh my God," said one well-born back-bencher, "is she the type to take deer-stalking?" In Conservative Central Office, a place where flirting is not the conventional modus operandi and which looks as if it had its last refurbishment when Harold Macmillan was a lad, she will cut a dash among the crowd of sartorially ungifted young men.
Platell has maintained her native Australian twang and some fruity expressions. Brought up in the suburbs of Perth, where her mother, Norma, worked as a secretary and her father, Frank, was a journalist. (He continues, at the age of 72, to put in two days a week). She gained a degree in politics and philosophy from the University of West Australia, served an apprenticeship on the Perth Daily News and set off back-packing round the world with her then fiance, John Chenery. Arriving in Britain nine years ago with the intention of earning enough to return to Australia, she started work on a modest contract at the Today newspaper as a sub-editor.
Having experienced new technology in Australia, when Today was still breaking ground in Britain, she stood out as someone who could press the right buttons. The red lipstick was already a fixture: a gesture that announced: "You'll remember me."
Her next move was to Robert Maxwell's London Daily News as a features editor. When Maxwell closed the paper, she was, according to colleagues, the only one who had a job offer within half-an-hour of the closure announcement. She cleaned her desk by depositing its contents into a bin before inviting everyone for a drink.
David Montgomery brought her back to Today when he was editor, and the link between them has been the defining one in Platell's professional life. He promoted her rapidly to deputy editor. She deeply resents rumours that their liaison has been more than professional. Montgomery moved to head the Mirror Group in 1994, and Platell became group managing editor with a place on the board. When The Mirror became part-owner of Newspaper Publishing plc, in 1994, she had responsibility for some vicious cost- cutting at The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, but none the less enjoyed a better relationship with the papers' staff than did the taciturn and distant Montgomery.
Platell has never balked at using her robust femininity to advance her cause. "Even when she's sacking you, she's flirting," says one victim. She wears her red lipstick on an almost comically large mouth, and has sparkling white teeth and a mane of expensively cut black hair. Anointed by Private Eye as one of the "Killer Bimbos of Fleet Street", she has described her own style as "fitted without the tits", although this errs on the side of under-statement. Her designer suits are offset by revealing T-shirts. A familiar sight in Christopher's, her favourite restaurant, is Platell holding forth to some male lunching partner mesmerised by the wide lips and the generous embonpoint opposite.
Her private life is currently mysterious. A previous property developer boyfriend seems to have disappeared from the scene. She shares her home in Hampstead, north London, with two cats. The earlier marriage to Chenery, a fellow journalist, ended in some bitterness when she packed his entire possessions into black bin-bags and deposited them on the pavement.
A Fleet Street potboiler entitled Scandal, based on her time in tabloids when a gaggle of women were in the editors' chairs, is due for publication in June. She is said to write a mean sex scene. The more playful political journalists at Westminster are already talking of a "battle of the pornographers" with Alastair Campbell, who wrote some steamy fiction in his youth. The second offering in a lucrative two-book deal is expected to fictionalise her feud with Rosie Boycott and the events at Express Newspapers last year. Five years ago she threatened to sue Edwina Currie, claiming that the lascivious heroine of Currie's novel, A Parliamentary Affair, was so closely modelled on her that her professional reputation was endangered.
Isn't there a risk, one shadow minister asked Hague last week, that Platell will become the focus of the story rather than the Tory leader she is there to promote? Hague's reply was sanguine: "Conservatism badly needs to be fun again and Amanda is capital F fun."
The real risk is that the long, slow haul of Opposition politics will prove too slow for someone used to the fast turnover of newspapers. Realistically, this is a job intended to take Hague into the election and help him secure enough of a come-back not to be turfed out by his own party the morning after the next Labour victory - a bit like trying to turn round a failing newspaper before the advertisers desert it. "Her real strength," says a former colleague, "is simply being Amanda Platell. But that goes a long way." We will see whether it goes far enough to redeem William Hague.
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