Heseltine hits back at 'dirty tricks' claims

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Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, accused Labour of "debasing" the political system yesterday after claims that government ministers were using civil servants as pawns.

Donald Dewar, Labour's Chief Whip, told GMTV he had a dossier of alleged abuses of privilege by ministers who were using Whitehall as an extension of Conservative Central Office.

Mr Dewar said that the Conservatives had launched a campaign of "dirty tricks". He suggested that the Government had "dragged" the Civil Service into politics by allowing Cen- tral Office to give "political" briefings on sensitive issues.

"Information that is properly with the Civil Service should not be put at the service of a faction," he said. "It is that kind of rule that has been blurred recently and that is bad for democracy," he added.

Mr Heseltine responded by claiming that Labour's allegations were "the most brazen distortion of the facts" he had come across "while following the persistent spin-doctoring techniques which Tony Blair has authorised".

Mr Heseltine also implied that a reported feud between the Tory chairman, Brian Mawhinney, and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, amounted to black propaganda by Labour.

"The present standards of media manipulation have never been seen in this country before," he said.

He claimed that Labour "apparatchiks" had learned American-style techniques. Mr Heseltine added: "I personally find that rather distasteful, but if that's the way politics has to be conducted, then so be it.

"The Conservative Party ... is now preparing itself for the techniques that we are going to have to fight, because we have watched the way in which [the Labour spin doctors] Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson are now handling and distorting the news in this country."