Alistair, darling ... but not Mr Campbell

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The Independent Online
It is a difficult tale. Chief Secretary to the Treasury William Waldegrave issues this big document claiming to cost all Labour's 89 spending commitments ("copper-bottomed" - John Major). Most of it is nonsense, some of it is true, but at the front it says that - in its compilation - civil servants were used in accordance with rules laid down by Sir Robin Butler (head of the Civil Service and thus a godlike figure on a par with Lords Cullen, Nolan, the Police Federation and Scientists).

Then some overenthusiastic Tory spin-doctor called Charles Lewington tells the political editor of the Daily Telegraph (shy, retiring George Jones) that Sir Robin has "approved" said document. This is repeated by Mr Jones on Newsnight, and in BBC bulletins throughout the long, political night.

Sir Robin Butler is miffed - and assures the world that it ain't so, leading the London Evening Standard to conclude (in a banner headline) "Bang goes Tory Tax Bombshell". So, without a single assertion in the document being so much as debated, it has already been derailed by an inaccurate claim - about someone entirely irrelevant to its content - being refuted. OK?

And that is why Mr Tim Allan, joint number two to Tony Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell, staggered to Labour's rebuttal press conference carrying a large bundle of the helpfully headlined Standards, which he then proceeded to hand out free to the assembled journalists.

Then Mr Peter Mandelson (either the "sexiest MP in Britain", or a "force lurking in the darkness", or both), began to berate the Telegraph man with "here's George Jones of the house journal of the Tory party, hot- foot from the Newsnight studios!". This obscure jibe was clearly intolerable to the sensitive Jones, who promptly walked out. "I hope he punches him on the nose", said ITN's political editor, Michael Brunson, remaining firmly seated despite his clear sense of outrage. "Anyway," he went on, "it's all based on BBC mis-reporting." The BBC contingent regarded him affectionately.

Eventually Gordon Brown appeared. He was late, he said, because "the exercise of finding Tory lies takes a bit longer than you initially allocate". As is his habit, Mr Brown followed this ambiguous sentence with a stretch of his jaw, as though isometrically testing his lower mandible.

He had his own costing to reveal. The whole exercise was "the most expensive lie in political history", at pounds 7m (mandible stretch). And it was all rubbish because - under his regime - "ministers will be asked to save before they spend" (stretch). Presumably they could start by not telling any lies, saving pounds 7m a throw.

There were more statistics. We had, according to Mr Brown, "89 Tory lies on top of 22 Tory tax increases". I made that 111 Nasty Things in total. At pounds 7m each, that amounted to pounds 777m wasted on lies, but available to an incoming Labour administration to spend on telling the truth.

Mr Brown then offered the stage to "Alistair, darling". This turned out not to be an intimate invitation to the hovering Mr Campbell, but an introduction to Alistair Darling, Shadow Chief Secretary, to address us. Mr Darling - who, with his startling silver hair, jet-black eyebrows and pixie features, looks like something from a Richard Dadd painting - was there to refute the Tory claims one by one. It was a lie that Labour planned to spend more on rail safety, nurseries, the disabled etc. as the wicked Tories falsely averred. Which is a shame, really.