Official: Campbell back on party payroll to head Blair's `dirty tricks' unit

n Key new election role for former spin chief n Fresh round of attacks on Howard planned
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The Independent Online

ony Blair has appointed Alastair Campbell to a new official post in the Labour Party with a brief to embark on a fresh round of personal attacks on the ory leader, Michael Howard. Mr Campbell's title is Head of Strategic Election Communications.

Mr Blair's controversial former director of communications is now second only to Alan Milburn in Labour's election campaign.

It is a dramatic return to full-time politics for a man who left the Government amid pledges by Mr Blair to abandon "spin". Mr Blair has acted despite what is widely reckoned to be serious damage caused by Mr Campbell's public battle with the BBC over the David Kelly affair. Labour declined to reveal what Mr Campbell is being paid but his salary in his former Downing Street post was around pounds 120,000. A No 10 spokesman insisted that no portion of his current pay is to be met by the taxpayer.

Although Labour has admitted previously that Mr Campbell was acting as a "consultant", his appointment to a full-time titled position is revealed for the first time today.

he former spin-doctor's talent for attracting controversy is undimmed. He was named by John Major yesterday as being behind reports that the former PM tried to block the release of information on Black Wednesday, which Mr Major has denied. It was the latest twist in a growing controversy over the parties' use of freedom of information legislation to "dig dirt" on their rivals.

he tactic was exposed in an internal document listing requests for damaging information on Mr Howard. But the Labour Party has denied that Mr Campbell was involved, implying that his part in what promises to be an increasingly ferocious campaign has hardly begun.

Private polling by the Labour Party has shown that the assault on Mr Howard's political record is working. he ory leader's rating with the voters is "in free fall", according to one of the campaign organisers.

Mr Howard will launch a vigorous bid today to re-establish himself as a tough leader capable of cutting crime. He has taken out a large advertisement in he Sunday imes to issue another in his series of personal statements of belief, this one focusing on crime.

"All my political life I have stood up for people who play by the rules. If I am given the opportunity to serve my country, I will ensure that at long last their rights come first," Mr Howard announced.

omorrow, Mr Howard will deliver a speech on crime, in which he will promise that a ory government will reform the law so that offenders are given both a minimum and a maximum prison sentence. No offender would be released before serving the minimum sentence in full.

Mr Campbell's return has been adroitly exploited by the Conservatives as evidence that Labour is preparing to fight dirty in the impending general election.

His reappearance could also upset relations between Mr Blair and Gordon Brown, further damaged last week by renewed speculation that the

Chancellor is to be moved to the Foreign Office if Labour wins a third term.

Jack Straw, the current occupant, has told friends that he blames "people in No 10" for briefing he imes and he Sun about the story.

"He feels that it risked undermining him, especially as it appeared just as Condoleezza Rice was about to arrive," one said. "It was a competition as to who was more furious, Brown or Straw," another said.

Mr Major, who retired from politics in 2001, made a rare appearance on Radio 4's oday programme yesterday, to deny that he had tried to obstruct publication of papers on Britain's exit from the exchange rate mechanism in 1992 - a disaster which did enduring damage to the Conservatives' reputation for economic competence.

Sir Andrew urnbull, the current Cabinet Secretary, backed up Mr Major's denials, prompting speculation that Mr Campbell's return is already causing tensions among leading civil servants.

he Labour Party replied with a formal statement saying: "he first Alastair Campbell or anyone else at Labour headquarters knew about freedom of information requests relating to Black Wednesday was when they read them in the press.

"But we see nothing wrong in probing the ory decision that delivered economic calamity to our country."

he decision to use the Freedom of Information Act was made by party officials before Mr Campbell's return to party politics. hey point out that the ories had announced on their official website that they were using the same Act to winkle out information about the Labour government's record.

"he ories' complaints about dirty tricks are utterly hypocritical," one adviser said yesterday.

Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, however, appeared out of step with his Labour colleagues when he called on politicians to "back off" the FOI Act.

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