The worst job in Britain

Even a genius on speed would find it difficult to make the Conservative s look like winners at the momen and Charles Lewington, the man supposed to be their maestro of spin, is no genius. The truth is he doesn't fill the bill (or the Tony or the Alastair). By Rob Brown
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The Independent Online
When Charles Lewington became the Tories' chief spin doctor 15 months ago, his peers in the parliamentary press gallery dismissed him as a lightweight. Today, with a general election less than seven weeks away at most, the depressing news for young Mr Lewington - and the party he represents - is that none of these mockers feel they underestimated him.

The consensus among lobby correspondents at Westminster is that "Lord Charles" simply isn't in the same league as his Labour counterpart Alastair Campbell, and this is one among many reasons why the Government has failed abysmally to get its message across to the electorate.

Unskilled in the black arts of spin doctoring. Ineffective. Too laid- back. Lacking the will to spin and win. These are his latest report cards from the people he is meant to be manipulating, or at the very least influencing.

No one in the press gallery seems greatly impressed by his performance. Reporters on the more liberal-minded papers complain that Lewington simply ignores them or gives special treatment to the infamous White Commonwealth press, namely the Sun, Express, Mail and Telegraph, and their Sunday stablemates. But the latter don't feel specially favoured. When they do get briefed by Lewington, they're usually bored stiff.

In the words of one scribe from a traditionally Tory-supporting tabloid: "The Conservatives desperately need a Rottweiler like Campbell and not the flouncing Afghan hound they have in Lewington."

On the sole occasion recently when he has bared his teeth in public, Lewington was all too easily slapped down by the target of his attack. In the wake of the Tories' by-election trouncing at Wirral South, he penned an opinion piece for the Sunday Telegraph claiming that three-quarters of BBC journalists were driven by undisguised left-wing prejudices.

It was such a crude and pathetic attempt at Beeb-bashing that Sir Christopher Bland, the corporation's chairman, brushed it off in a public forum as "absurd, shallow and consisting mainly of vague views". He told the Broadcasting Press Guild: "If that is the worst thing that happens to the BBC during the election campaign, and if that is the weight of the criticism, I won't be concerned."

Sir Christopher can, indeed, relax. Lightweight criticism is the most he can expect from the lightweight operator in charge of the Tories' media machine. The Tories may have invented spin and manipulation of the lobby, but they are now being utterly outclassed in this sphere by Labour. In the words of one lobby correspondent: "It's a case of tanks versus cavalry."

Being communications director of the Conservative Party in its present condition must rank, of course, as one of the toughest jobs in Britain. How can the party's PR supremo be expected to communicate the Tory line clearly and accurately to the press when leading Cabinet members repeatedly contradict each other in public on a central issue like the single currency?

The Conservatives' apparent determination to self-destruct was one reason why Lewington landed the job. He was far from the first choice to replace Hugh Colver, who left abruptly in December 1995. Several older, wiser heads at Westminster were sounded out and decided to give it a wide body swerve.

It wasn't just Labour's huge poll lead which put them off. There had also been a long history of bitter tensions between Downing Street and Central Office, which has itself been something of a viper's nest even in the best of times for the Tories.

None of this put off Charles Lewington. He had been political editor of the Sunday Express for less than two years when Conservative chairman Brian Mawhinney, a good contact of his, asked him to cross the wire from political journalism to spin doctoring.

Lewington - dubbed "Lord Charles" because of his suave, ultra-smooth demeanour and habit of chain-smoking Hamlet cigars - had always struck his press colleagues as a potential defector to PR. Most imagined, though, that he would migrate to the City or some other part of private sector rather than into political spin doctoring.

Lewington, who is 37, had a solid middle-class upbringing in Kent. His father was a small businessman and sent him to a private school, Sherborne, in Dorset. It was while reading economics at Bath University that he first became involved in politics. He campaigned for Chris Patten on campus and still treasures the letter of thanks he got from him.

On graduating, he cut his journalistic teeth on the Bath Chronicle then the Bristol-based Western Daily Press, which gave him his first taste of Westminster reporting. In 1990 he joined the Daily Express's political team, covering Scottish affairs initially for its tartanised edition. He moved to the Sunday when it was edited by Eve Pollard. Her husband (then editor of the Daily Express) suggested the move, which might not be the most flattering reflection of his abilities as a political journalist.

"He's not anywhere near as much a political animal as Alastair Campell," said one former colleague. "Charles always gives the impression that journalism for him was a job, not a mission.

"It's been the same since he moved into spin doctoring. Most of us feel he would ultimately be happier in another job where the salary is a lot higher and the lunches a lot longer."

Talking of lunches, one of the recurring complaints from journalists in what used to be the Tory press is that he has never taken them out for a meal. This isn't because they feel deprived of free food and wine, but because they expect to be courted by someone in his position.

Indeed, they expect to be badgered and bullied by spin doctors. And they don't get that either from Lewington. "Don't get me wrong," says one Westminster watcher. "We like Charles more than Campbell, who can be a complete thug. But we respect Campbell a lot more. He's bloody good at what he does."

In private Lewington acknowledges that Campbell is a smart operator. He has, in fact, been forced to take a leaf out of Labour's book on several occasions and try to match its communications operation at Millbank. He certainly took a cue from his opponents by establishing a rapid rebuttal unit at Central Office.

Inside the Tory HQ Lewington has forged a close working relationship with Danny Finkelstein, the Tories' director of research, who was hired two months before him. Although "The Fink" is regarded as "one of the biggest brains in Torydom", Brian Mawhinney had to overcome some objections before appointing him; his previous connections with the SDP (he was one of David Owen's key aides) didn't endear him to every senior Tory.

Finkelstein and Lewington have combined their operations and are certainly working more amicably than Sean Woodward and Andrew Lanley, who were at each other's throats in the run-up to the May 1992 election. But they could put a victory down on the CVs after that brutal contest. Few suspect that Lewington will be able to do the same on 2 May.

Not that it will hold him back in career stakes. Even if the Tories suffer a massive defeat on 1 May, most of his peers in the press gallery expect Charles Lewington to go on to a glowing career in private PR. Few will be surprised if he ends up working for Sir Tim Bell, Baroness Thatcher's favourite PR guru who remains one of the "Three Musketeers" behind the Tory marketing campaign, along with Lord (Maurice) Saatchi and Peter Gummer, chairman of Shandwick - another leading PR firm which might provide a post-election soft landing for Lord Charlesn

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