Media: If Gordon Brown looks good, buy Charlie a drink

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The Independent Online
Charlie Whelan is the man who spins press coverage for the Chancellor of the Exchequer and he's doing very well. How can you tell? Because we've been sold Brown's policies, we like his fiancee and, thanks to Charlie, he's even knocking Blair off the front page when he needs to. Kim Sengupta enters Labour's fiercest internal market.

In the Fiddler's Elbow pub at Brighton, away from the sanitised environs of the Labour conference centre, or Tony Town as it had come to be called, Charlie Whelan was relaxing in the company of those he professes to like far more than politicians - journalists.

It was a time of quiet triumph. Gordon Brown's special adviser had had a good conference. The briefing to journalists in advance of the Chancellor's "jobs for all" speech had dominated the media on the first day at Brighton, and it was followed by one of the spins of the week. The Daily Mail, one of the right-wing tabloids New Labour has so assiduously cultivated, ignored Tony Blair's conference keynote speech for its front page. Instead it splashed on how Gordon Brown was considering offering tax breaks for families "looking after their grannies".

Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, it was said, were not best pleased. Mr Whelan shrugged this off - he was not responsible for when the Mail chose to use a particular story. The third and least known of Millbank's triumvirate of spin is now confident enough to hold the line in the periodic bloody skirmishes which break out behind New Labour's closed doors.

Relations between the Brown camp and Mr Campbell are said to be amicable. But it is hardly a secret among politicians and journalists that the Chancellor and his staff do not always see eye to eye with Mr Mandelson.

Some of the spats between Mr Whelan and Mr Mandelson, both forthright personalities, have been incendiary. One well-placed source said: "Peter of course can and does intimidate people at times. Charlie would stand with his face two inches away from Peter's, stare him out and say `You are talking bollocks. You are a total fucking bastard. I am not going to take any crap from you. I don't want to listen to you'."

Mr Whelan's emergence came in a conference week when the bearers of the whispered message became news themselves. Mr Mandelson's failure to get on the NEC was reported with much glee, and then came the bizarre story in The Sun of the actress Nicola Pagett's unrequited lust for Mr Campbell.

Mr Whelan's public exposure was more flattering. Scottish Television's fly-on-the-wall documentary for Network First focused on Gordon Brown, but one could hardly miss his roguish and engaging young spokesman as he bullied, stroked and hustled journalists into seeing the Brown version of things.

The concluding part, to be screened tomorrow, shows Mr Whelan and Ed Balls, the even younger policy adviser to the Chancellor, settling into the Treasury after the election and flexing their muscles.

So who exactly is this latest star to emerge from Millbank Productions? It is, of course, a prerequisite of the black art of spin-doctoring that it and its practitioners be surrounded in mystery. He has thus been variously described as Scottish or Irish; a grammar, secondary modern, or public schoolboy; a closet communist and a social democrat; married and unmarried; and even as an Arsenal fan.

Charlie Whelan is 43. He was born in south London and raised in Surrey. He did go to a secondary modern school, but also to what he would only describe as a " boarding school". Since we can assume that this was not a young offenders' institution, Mr Whelan has had the benefit of private education. He lives with his partner Philippa, who works for the Fire Brigades Union, in south London. He is an MCC member and he supports Arsenal who, he points out jocularly, are of course in a slightly better position in the league than Mr Campbell's beloved Burnley.

After reading politics at City of London Polytechnic, young Charles became a foreign-exchange dealer for six months. He hated it and joined the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union as a researcher. Here he met Jimmy Airlie, one of the giants of post-war trade unionism and the guiding force in the battle to save the Upper Clyde shipyards.

Mr Whelan idolises Mr Airlie, who died earlier this year. He saw him as one of the earliest unrecognised modernisers, a former Communist Party member who later joined Labour and saw before many that the unions had to accept one member one vote.

It was while he was campaigning for Omov that Mr Whelan came to the notice of someone building up a New Labour team which would take the party on the long march back from the political wilderness - Peter Mandelson. Mr Whelan said he would only work for either Blair or Brown.

He was appointed the shadow Chancellor's press officer, and the two men quickly built up a close working rapport ,with Mr Whelan showing Mr Brown the fierce loyalty he had in the past for Mr Airlie. He halved the number of interviews being given by Brown to give them more focus, and curtailed the sheer volume of press releases he was putting out.

The first row with Mr Mandelson came after the famous Granita dinner, where Gordon Brown stood aside in the leadership contest. Mr Mandelson, by then very much Mr Blair's man, informed the media of the development without consulting Mr Whelan.

Mr Whelan was furious, and there were further disagreements during the election campaign when he felt Mr Mandelson, always keen on central control, was interfering damagingly in the shadow Chancellor's patch. On at least one occasion he kept details of a tax plan away from Mr Mandelson because he feared it might be prematurely leaked.

But as the campaign progressed Mr Whelan's spinning abilities began to be appreciated more and more by Messrs Mandelson and Campbell. One prolonged and intricate operation, with "Charlie Boy" sending journalists into various blind alleys, and ending with the stage managed announcement by Gordon Brown that he would leave the basic and top rate for income tax unchanged for five years, was a resounding triumph for New Labour, and a body blow to the Conservatives. Mr Mandelson called it " tremendous", and Mr Campbell acknowledged "It was one hell of an operation".

Behind the scenes Tatton was another triumph for Gordon Brown and Charlie Whelan. It was the shadow Chancellor who, according to New Labour sources, floated the idea that the Labour candidate should stand down in favour of an anti-sleaze candidate, and persuade the Lib Dems to do the same. The result was the entry of Martin Bell, and the guarantee that Neil Hamilton and Tory sleaze would stay in the headlines.

In the meantime Mr Whelan was also hard at work to ensure his boss's personal life was seen in the best light. There had been unfounded rumours floating around that Mr Brown was gay, and Sue Lawley repeatedly raised the question of his sexuality while talking to him on Desert Island Discs. Then photographers just happened to chance on the Chancellor having a romantic dinner with his attractive girlfriend Sarah Macaulay. Mr Whelan was "chuffed". Last week the Evening Standard, in assessing the progress of New Labour ministers specifically mentioned that Mr Brown had "gained extra points for the skilful unveiling of his romance with Sarah Macaulay".

As the New Labour government hit the ground running, so did its press cohort. Mr Whelan still finds it difficult to adjust to the fact that things have changed since 1 May. After arriving at the Treasury he became very excited by a piece of information and was rushing around saying it would be a great one to leak. "Charlie," a colleague gently pointed out, "you are in government now. There is no need to `leak' this - announce it."

But apart from such minor adjustments, say the observers, Mr Whelan is very much on a fast track in the New Labour hierarchy, and you cross him at your peril. One senior MP said at Brighton: "Like the other spin-doctors sometimes Charlie gets involved in intrigue just for the sake of it. If there was a straight road from A to B, he would still insist on going via F. He is a charmer with a knife. I am bloody glad he is on our side."

Network First is on ITV at 10.40 tomorrow night.

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