Panic stations in Smith Square

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The Independent Online
The Conservative campaign team threw away its script yesterday, in a move which made the party's media strategy appear increasingly panicky.

For the second time this week, an impromptu press conference was thrown at Central Office to make capital out of newspaper stories which were damaging to Labour.

With Labour's rapid-rebuttal machine geared up to respond within an hour to any Conservative statement, the party is trying to tighten up its act. But Labour's campaign organiser, Brian Wilson, accused the Tories of behaving "like drowning men".

An announcement by Gillian Shephard on school tests, billed for yesterday's morning press conference, was dropped for an attack by Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, on Labour plans for trade union recognition, prompted by a report in the Daily Mail. Although Mrs Shephard appeared at Central Office, her plans for more tests for 14-year-olds were relegated to the fax machine.

On Monday, The Independent's revelation that Labour was planning hospital closures was followed belatedly by an afternoon press conference, hosted by the Secretary of State for Health, Stephen Dorrell.

Although the Tories denied they had been forced to change strategy, the sharpness of Labour's machinery has left them feeling exposed. When The Independent published its story in Monday's paper, Labour health spokesman Chris Smith was on the phone to its newsdesk before 1am with a denial. Yesterday's Tory change of schedule had brought a response from Labour's education spokesman, David Blunkett, in ample time for lunchtime broadcasts.

A Conservative spokesman denied that the change of plan revealed any lack of coherence.