Mawhinney left to face fire over leak

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The Independent Online

Chief Political Correspondent

The Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, yesterday left Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman, to face the fire over the leaking of the contents of a draft speech by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor.

Mr Heseltine told MPs that Dr Mawhinney could answer the criticism, as Labour stepped updemands for an inquiry into allegations of civil servants being used by the Tory party.

Sources close to Mr Heseltine said he was determined to go on to the offensive against Labour, to avoid becoming bogged down in the briefing last week by a member of Dr Mawhinney's staff, which opened the Tory party chairman up to attack.

"A mistake was made, there is no getting away from that, but he made it clear that he was not going to dwell on it. The aim is to shake Labour up, and ruffle their feathers," said one ministerial source. "We are not going to give up now, just because it has got a bit rough."

Mr Heseltine chaired the Cabinet committee co-ordinating the Government's publicity and promotion at Downing Street, but the Tories' attempt to counter the appeal of Tony Blair heightened tensions in the Government.

Responding to Labour taunts in the Commons about the use of civil servants, Mr Heseltine warned that Mr Blair would politicise the position of the Prime Minister's press secretary by appointing a party political "spin doctor", Alastair Campbell, if Labour won power.

Labour sources confirmed Mr Campbell, a former journalist and Labour supporter, was in line for the post, if Labour won the next general election. He will be seconded into the post as a civil servant. But the row threatened to embroil the Prime Minister's press secretary, Christopher Meyer.

Mr Meyer, a career diplomat, privately made it clear that he had no intention of breaking the code of keeping out of party political propaganda which he adopted on taking up the post. But the difficulty of his neutral position was underlined by Mr Heseltine's remarks. Most ministers, including the Prime Minister, have special advisers from the party network, on short contracts as civil servants.

Labour sources privately admitted that there would be a clear advantage in appointing a party supporter to the Number 10 role, because it would allow party presentation to be mixed with official briefings on Government business to the press.

Mr Meyer has drawn a clear line between presenting the Government's case in the best light, and refusing to engage in party political propaganda. He has had John Major's absolute support in maintaining his integrity as a civil servant.

A senior Conservative Party source said last night: "Labour is accusing us of using civil servants, which we deny. We are pointing out that Labour would politicise the Prime Minister's office. We have no intention of doing that."