Labour aide quits after tension over 'spin doctors'

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

The appearance of disarray in the Labour Party was strengthened last night by the resignation of Joy Johnson, director of campaigns, elections and media, to return to broadcasting.

Her departure follows several months of tension in which she fell out semi-publicly with Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's press secretary, and Peter Mandelson, the leader's close adviser.

Some Labour MPs privately accuse "modernisers" of squeezing her out, and say her departure reveals the extent to which power is now concentrated in the leader's office. Friends of Ms Johnson, who took the job in February last year, said her disagreements were personality clashes rather than political disputes and she had never succeeded in shaking off the attractions of journalism.

"I see my own future in broadcasting, and that future is better secured by leaving now, rather than much closer to the election," said Ms Johnson, who will leave next month. She is understood to be discussing a return to the BBC.

Before coming to the Labour Party she had been a journalist for 16 years, first with ITN and then with the BBC, which she joined in 1990 as political news organiser before rising to political news editor.

She took over as director of a merged campaigns, elections and media department at the Labour Party and was credited with completing a system of daily briefing by computer and fax for all Labour MPs and officials.

She said that she realised she was in the wrong job last June, when she heard the news of John Redwood's resignation from the Cabinet to challenge John Major for the Tory leadership. "A tremor went through my body. I didn't know whether to drive to the BBC office in Westminster and say, 'I'm back', or to Labour HQ," she said.

She returned to Labour HQ, but stories began to surface of her conflicts. Ms Johnson disagreed with Mr Campbell's attempt to bully the BBC by public fax into giving prominent coverage to Mr Blair's conference speech on the same day as the OJ Simpson verdict. While at the BBC, Ms Johnson was in charge of party conference coverage and she obviously thought she knew more about how to get a better response out of the corporation than Mr Campbell.

Meanwhile, some of Mr Blair's allies were suspicious of Ms Johnson because, as a party member, she voted for Margaret Beckett in the 1994 leadership election.

Her notes for the party's election conference guide were also read as coded attacks on Mr Blair's aides. "I am not a spin doctor for the very good reason that we won't win by spin. We will win by getting our policies right," she declared.

She went on, allegedly referring to Mr Campbell: "I don't come from the self- regarding media school which believes that press officers or communications specialists are terribly interesting people or that we deserve a profile at least as high as the politicians we serve."

However, Mr Blair approved her appointment last year and she was for a time a trusted member of the inner circle.