Spin from the same hymn sheet

If you think last week's resignations mean a change of heart, think again, says Andrew Grice
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The Independent Online

When Tony Blair won a second term last June, one of the "must do"s at the top of his checklist was to cure his government's addiction to spin. He has now paid a heavy price for his failure to do so: the gladiatorial battle between the political spin doctor Jo Moore and the Civil Service press officers at the troubled Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) ended on Friday, when both Moore and Martin Sixsmith, the director of communications, were forced to resign.

Blair's determination to "cut the spin" last June did not stem from altruism. He knew that spin, a huge asset for New Labour in opposition, had become a liability in government, a symbol of the distrust of Blair personally and his administration in general. So the Prime Minister moved Alastair Campbell, his press secretary and the public personification of spin, to a senior but backroom role as director of communications and strategy. Campbell, a special adviser allowed to brief the media while wearing two hats (party political and government) was replaced by two civil servants who now share the press secretary's job – Godric Smith, formerly Campbell's deputy, and Tom Kelly, who was director of communications at the Northern Ireland Office. At first, Blair's plan to wean New Labour off spin seemed to work. The twice-daily briefings by Smith and Kelly were much less confrontational than under Campbell. They played with a straight bat and refused to stray on to party political territory.

Some journalists felt aggrieved at being denied access to Campbell, Blair's closest aide and unmistakably his master's voice. But from the Government's point of view, the new system seemed successful. The risky job-share worked because Smith and Kelly got on well personally. They toned down the spin – for example, by not briefing on every speech or initiative before it had happened.

The new dawn ended abruptly on 11 September. Working at her north London home, Moore sent an e-mail from her laptop computer to Alun Evans, then communications director at the DTLR, saying it would be a good day to bury bad news. When her notorious message was leaked to The Independent, Smith and Kelly knew that their efforts to turn the tide of spin had been scuppered. Spin was alive and kicking; here was the most graphic and terrible example of it.

There was worse to come. Although Campbell thought Moore should resign, her boss, Stephen Byers, was reluctant to lose her, and Blair backed his Transport Secretary. Moore could barely do her job. Yet she hung on, fuelling the campaign by civil servants to force her out. Their running feud erupted publicly again last week, and this time there was no escape for Moore.

There will now be much talk of drawing a line, learning lessons and giving up spin. Yet the Moore affair is not an isolated incident. Even outside the fractious DTLR, old habits have returned. Having been criticised for making announcements to the media rather than Parliament, the Government promised that the ministerial code of conduct would be written to ensure that MPs were told first.

The pledge was not worth the paper it was written on. Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, was caught red-handed. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, openly flouted the "rule" when launching this month's White Paper on nationality. Downing Street said the code was followed "where practical" – in other words, when it suited the Government. (We should therefore treat any pledges of a legally binding code for spin doctors with caution.)

Despite the honest attempts by Smith and Kelly to cut down on spinning, Labour can't help itself. Blair, a much more confident Prime Minister in his second term, professes to worry less about "tomorrow's headlines". Yet spin is ingrained in New Labour's soul. It is embodied in the new structure of an expanded Downing Street machine, with Campbell as the most powerful head of its three "pillars" (the others are policy and government relations). As one Blair aide admitted: "If you put a spin doctor at the top of the tree, what do you expect? We need more emphasis on policy."

Experienced civil servants complain that Campbell sometimes forgets what they call "Bernard Ingham's law". The maxim of Margaret Thatcher's press secretary was: "When in a hole, stop digging." But one senior Whitehall press officer says: "When we are in trouble, Campbell tells us to do more. Sometimes it is better to do less. Spin has become a substitute for thought and for policy."

Fortunately, a few thoughtful ministers such as Charles Clarke and Peter Hain now realise that New Labour's straitjacket has squeezed the lifeblood out of politics and turned off the public. They are prepared to speak their mind and say, respectively, that the NHS has gone backwards and that Britain has the worst railways in Europe. But the hostile reaction of many of their Labour colleagues shows that, for the time being, the culture of spin is still alive. Now is a good time to bury it, as Moore might have said.