Sir Ming hires spin doctor to help his battered image

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The Independent Online

* Call it desperation; call it a brave throw of the dice. Either way, Sir Menzies Campbell has decided to respond to recent troubles by throwing a fresh dollop of PR at the problem.

Four months after he replaced Charles Kennedy as Lib Dem leader, Sir Ming has appointed one Puja Darbani as his new press supremo.

The hitherto-unknown PR woman, who works for an agency called The Forster Company, makes for an unlikely Alastair Campbell. But she does boast useful credentials for steering her boss through choppy waters.

Her firm's clients include The Body Shop, which recently faced unwelcome coverage after Dame Anita Roddick flogged the "ethical" firm to global pharmaceuticals giant L'Oréal.

Darbani's appointment comes at a time when Campbell faces criticism from both his party's rank and file, and newspapers, which have been highly critical of his performances at the despatch box.

She is expected to move into Campbell's office in July, and will take over from a temporary team, which has been muddling along for almost four months since the new leader took office.

"The leader of the Lib Dems always has a press secretary, and the last one, Jackie Rowley, left when Charles Kennedy did," said a Lib Dem spokesman last night.

"There's nothing unusual about this appointment. The only unusual thing has been that Sir Menzies has been leader for nearly four months, without a press secretary."

* If you'll pardon the expression, the Bee Gees are about to demonstrate their ongoing ability to stay alive.

Next year, the 30th anniversary of Saturday Night Fever, the group's surviving members, Barry and Robin Gibb, intend to hit the road together again.

Although they've performed occasional one-off gigs, it'll be the first Bee Gees tour since the death of their brother, Maurice, in 2004.

The putative concerts will also end long-running hostilities between the two, which last hit the news pages in November.

"It's taken two years to get over Maurice's death, and reach the stage where we can work together again," said Robin, at yesterday's Ivor Novello awards.

"I now realise that it's even more important that we do stuff together. So we might well be going back on the road next year, but dates won't be announced until everything's concrete."

* The chef, and noted swordsman, Jean-Christophe Novelli turns out to be a skilled multitasker.

This week, Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine attempted to contact the energetic Frenchman, to ask if there had been any developments in his heated recent dispute with Michael Winner.

"The French chef left us a brief phone message apologising for missing our call," it reports. "Alarmingly, in the background, one could hear a female moaning in what we can only guess was pleasure."

Over to Novelli's spokesman. "They've got the wrong end of the stick," I'm told. "Jean-Christophe is very busy at the moment, so any female moans would have been from people in his office being told to work harder."

"They certainly weren't coming from JC's bedroom."

* Gordon Brown used to look like he carried the weight of the world upon his earnest shoulders. Recently, his furrowed brow has disappeared. Instead, the Chancellor has been dazzling Westminster with a gleaming smile.

Lobby correspondents have been reliably informed that its part of a co-ordinated "makeover" campaign. "Gordon's advisers have realised that he's always frowning when you see him on telly, sitting next to Blair, so they told him to smile more," I'm told.

On Wednesday, he grinned like a maniac through PMQs, except in the serious bits, when he returned to the usual frown.

Even by the standards of New Labour, Brown can boast a mega-watt grin: it emerged last month that his pearly whites have been bleached and capped.

* Conservative Future, the Tory party's optimistically named youth wing, is about to play a trump card.

By way of a fundraiser, its West Midlands branch has invited members to "An Audience with Boycie", in Birmingham on 16 July.

For the princely sum of £15, they can take part in a Q&A session with John Challis, the former Only Fools and Horses actor, who owns one of Britain's most famous moustaches.

For David Cameron, it's a PR coup. Challis has never previously "come out" as a Tory, though he did once say of Tony Blair: "He's ghastly. The socialist ethos seems to have disappeared, and we're living under some kind of presidency. Horrible."