Opinion: Is there a spin-doctor in the House?

The departure of Alastair Campbell has left Labour's press office in paralysis says Andy McSmith

Frank Dobson, the former Health Secretary, tells a joke that political spin-doctors are like poisoners: there have been famous poisoners and there have been successful poisoners, but there have been no famous, successful poisoners.

Frank Dobson, the former Health Secretary, tells a joke that political spin-doctors are like poisoners: there have been famous poisoners and there have been successful poisoners, but there have been no famous, successful poisoners.

The Labour Party is still paying a price for the self-defeating fame of some of its former spin-doctors - Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, Charlie Whelan, Jo Moore, etc - whose exploits have been written up so often that one academic, writing last week, described New Labour's spin operation as "one of our dominant narratives of the last decade".

That was in the old days. Now, the Labour Party has descended into a kind of post-spin paralysis. Bereft of Mr Campbell, Tony Blair is left with an efficient press office in Downing Street, but no co-ordinated "spin" operation.

Instead, he runs an informal arrangement using a small circle of past and present Cabinet ministers whom he trusts. When Mr Blair does not like the slant that is being put on the day's political news, he rings members of the circle to urge them to contact journalists they know to put across the story according to the Prime Minister, without making it explicit that it is coming from him.

It is odd being on the receiving end of these prime ministerial messages. Someone from the circle rings up claiming to have had a spontaneous thought about the day's political news. Minutes later, someone else from the circle rings after being struck by exactly the same thought.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is trapped with a Lucretia Borgia-like reputation left over from the pre-1997 era, undermining public faith in the party, when in reality its current spin operation is so inefficient and feeble that it could not administer the poison to give a bulimic vegetarian the hiccups.

A couple of personal experiences of the recent election provided an insight into the dire state of Labour's media operation. On the day after polling, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP were contacting journalists to put their spin on the local council elections. So I tried the press office at Labour's headquarters, hoping to find out if anyone there was holding a press briefing. The answer was that they did not know. Because of this helpless inertia, the local government results - bad enough in themselves - looked even worse when reported by journalists who had been briefed by Labour's opponents but not by the Labour Party.

A few weeks earlier, as the invites came in from political parties to the launches of their European election campaigns, I tried the same Labour press office for any news of theirs. It was Saturday. The office was empty. A recorded voice directed me to a pager. Ringing that number produced a response from the duty press officer, but he did not know when Labour was launching its campaign. He went away to find out, drew a blank, and called me to suggest I try a different pager. Still no answer. The mystery launch took place the following Monday, featuring Mr Blair, Gordon Brown and Patricia Hewitt.

I relate these trivial tales not to invoke sympathy for us political hacks, for whom an ineffective press office is just an irritant. The real losers are those who want the Labour government to survive the next general election.

The problem is not new. It is a structural problem faced by governing parties, a repeat of what happened 20 years ago when Margaret Thatcher allowed Conservative Central Office's press office to rot on the vine, because she liked to have all presentation handled from Downing Street.

It seems that Mr Blair cannot bear to let control of the media operation pass outside his little magic circle. The problems this causes are likely to be magnified a thousand-fold when the Labour Party enters the next general election - the first for more than a decade that it could actually lose.

If the Labour Party spends that campaign floundering about amateurishly, incapable of answering elementary questions from the media, it could wake up on a Friday morning to find that it is sunk.

Andy McSmith is the political editor of 'The Independent on Sunday'

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