And then there were three...

Filling Alastair Campbell's large shoes was never going to be easy. The solution? Get three men to replace the former spinmeister. Andrew Grice reports
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The Independent Online

The departure of Alastair Campbell from Downing Street last September was marked by tears from some at No 10, and cheers from his many critics in the media. Remarkably, some commentators are looking back on "the Campbell era" as a golden one, as the No 10 machine struggles to defend Tony Blair over Iraq and quell speculation that he might stand down.

The departure of Alastair Campbell from Downing Street last September was marked by tears from some at No 10, and cheers from his many critics in the media. Remarkably, some commentators are looking back on "the Campbell era" as a golden one, as the No 10 machine struggles to defend Tony Blair over Iraq and quell speculation that he might stand down.

It would be surprising if Blair had not regretted Campbell's absence on darker days. Some Labour insiders believe that mistakes have been made that Campbell might have prevented, and that the Government has lost the strategic vision that Campbell brought. Yet the critics are over-egging the pudding. Perhaps some recent stories might have been handled better. But Blair has been going through his roughest patch, and almost certainly would have done so even if Campbell had not quit. Iraq is a spin-doctor's nightmare. The room for manoeuvre is limited further by the Prime Minister's "shoulder-to-shoulder" relationship with President Bush.

The announcement of Blair's decision to hold a referendum on the EU constitution was certainly shambolic. But there isn't much a press officer can do when ministers leak a discussion to the press that he doesn't even know about. Maybe Campbell would have got a grip after the initial leak. But it is unfair to shoot media messengers when they are kept out of the loop.

Whoever had to fill Campbell's very large shoes was always going to have a problem. He was much more than a spin doctor. He was there at the birth of the New Labour project, and knew Blair's mind better than anyone.

Arguably, it will take three people to fill those shoes. Campbell's "party political" role as a special adviser went to David Hill, a veteran Labour apparatchik who had to be persuaded to return to politics as he was enjoying his new life as a director of Bell Pottinger, the public-affairs company. Hill was on a short list of one, the only man to become director of communications. Although not as close to Blair as Campbell, he was trusted by the Prime Minister. Crucially, he was also trusted by Westminster-based journalists, and could rebuild bridges with them. His style is very different to Campbell's. He is less confrontational, preferring a quiet word with a journalist rather than an ear-bashing on the phone.

The new style was illustrated in the saga of the fake Daily Mirror photographs. The gossip in No 10 is that Mr Campbell might have plunged into a "Gilligan mark II" row with Piers Morgan - no friend of his. Instead, No 10 restrained itself, refusing to comment when Morgan resigned. The message was that the days of spin were over.

Campbell's strategic role was taken over last month by Godric Smith, a civil servant who previously shared the post of Prime Minister's official spokesman with Tom Kelly, who now holds the twice-daily briefings. In another attempt to create a more open system, briefings are expected to be televised three mornings a week.

The final piece of the post-Campbell jigsaw will be in place this summer, when Howell James, political secretary to John Major when Prime Minister, takes up a new post as permanent secretary in charge of government communications. The post was recommended by a review chaired by Bob Phillis, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, which found that overseeing communications should be done by a senior civil servant rather than a political animal such as Campbell.

James is disentangling himself from the PR firm Brown Lloyd James, where he is a partner. When he moves to the Cabinet Office, he hopes to create a "nerve centre" and "centre of excellence" for the communications machine. He will co-ordinate issues spanning different departments, and look at how the Government communicates with the public, through marketing, advertising and new media. The Phillis inquiry identified a "breakdown of trust between public, media and Government". The new structure is designed to address the problem, but there's little sign of a much-needed dialogue between Government and media. And trust won't easily be regained while Iraq remains such a dominant issue.

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