Guy Black: The Tories find a new master for their makeover

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The Independent Online

"One of the first things Guy will have to do," says a former Tory Cabinet adviser, "is to persuade Michael Howard to stop using that dreadful powder compact." The Tory leader has a very pronounced five o'clock shadow, and in his days as a minister used to carry a powder compact so that if called to the TV studios at short notice he could apply a quick dusting to render himself even more appealing to the camera. "He always put too much on and then looked a ghastly white," complains the former adviser. "But Guy will know just how to deal with him."

Such tact has long been the calling card of Guy Black, just appointed as the Conservative Party's new press chief and charged with helping his leader to turn the Tories into "the most effective political campaigning machine in the world". It has been much in evidence in his seven years as director of the Press Complaints Commission, a post in which he succeeded his partner Mark Bolland, who went on to serve as deputy private secretary to Prince Charles until earlier this year.

During this time he has had to deal with allegations that the PCC is toothless, that it favours celebrities over ordinary complainants, and that his friendship with Ross Kemp, whose wife is The Sun's editor Rebekah Wade, and with whom he has holidayed, has compromised his own impartiality. He has also had to face threats of statutory control of the press, which he argued would effectively make the PCC redundant.

Opinions differ over how successful he has been at the PCC. One former member of the commission commends Black for having run "a very happy ship", while others who have dealt with him at the sharper end label him "a bit oily" and even "eminently untrustworthy". All would agree, however, that he possesses great charm and a soothing manner. Some of that oil, perhaps, works well on troubled waters.

This ability to get on with people seems to have been present from an early age. Educated at Brentwood School in Essex, he is almost exactly the same age as his friend, the actor Ross Kemp, who lived close by but who did not, as has often been reported, attend the same alma mater as Black.

A lifelong Conservative, his political career began in his teens. He first remembers canvassing in the local elections of 1982. It being the time when Essex man was the epitome of triumphant Thatcherism, he became used to a warm reception on the doorstep. Already, though, his willingness to please was playing a part in his participation in local politics. As an accomplished pianist (he went up to Grade 8), he found himself much in demand at carol concerts hosted by various Tory worthies. So often did he lend his services at the keyboard that to this day he can perform hundreds of carols without reference to sheet music.

When he went to Cambridge to read history at Peterhouse, where he was taught by the Conservative intellectual Maurice Cowling, father of the "Peterhouse mafia", he achieved the rare feat of being actively involved in student politics without earning the enmity of his peers. "In the piranha fishbowl that was the Cambridge University Conservative Association," remembers a contemporary, "he managed to avoid all-out battles. He wasn't hated or detested by anyone, which most of the rest of us were. He was a man of the right - who wasn't? - but he was better than the careerists. There was always a core conviction to his politics."

While he may not have been a careerist, he seems to have been determined to fit in. "He knew exactly how to behave," recalls another who knew him at Cambridge. "He had a keen sense of what he should be doing or saying, which made him very agreeable."

After taking a first, Black joined the city firm BZW but did not enjoy his time there. When Cowling wrote to him saying that the Conservative Research Department was looking for bright new recruits, Black made his move. In the 1987 general election one of his roles was to attend the SDP/Liberal Alliance press conferences to hear what was said. He then had to report anything of significance to Mrs Thatcher, an experience he has compared unfavourably to having dental surgery without anaesthetic. It was at this time that he came to the attention of John, later Lord, Wakeham, the government chief whip known among Tories as "the fixers' fixer". Black started writing briefing papers for him, and when Wakeham became Energy Secretary moved with him as his special adviser. "Wakeham was a hard taskmaster," recalls another Cabinet adviser of the period. "If anyone was working for him it was thought they must be pretty sharp."

While working for Wakeham Black met Mark Bolland, who was working for the Advertising Standards Authority. "I met him at a lobbyists' party," he has explained, "in the days when lobbyists still had parties." Bolland later became director of the Press Complaints Commission, which Wakeham joined as chairman. When Bolland moved to St James's Palace, Wakeham immediately called for his former adviser, by this point an associate director of Lowe Bell Good Relations. "Well, I'll have to have Guy," he's said to have told Bolland. "Please sort it out."

It was a summons Black had no hesitation in replying to, just as he did not need to think twice when Michael Howard asked him to take on his new role at Conservative Central Office, which he is expected to take up in the New Year. "He is very loyal to his friends," says one. "And in this case he was asked to talk to Michael by Stephen Sherbourne, whom he worked for years ago at the Research Department." This loyalty was also in evidence when Wakeham had to step down from his PCC position over his involvement with Enron. "Guy was almost in tears when that happened," says a friend.

For once Tory Central Office seems likely to avoid the infighting that has plagued it for years. "At last we have a top team of strategists who are not only talented but have worked with each other and trust each other," comments the Conservative MP David Ruffley, who has known Black for 20 years. "We haven't seen anything like that since Thatcher." His skills, not only in analysis and brief-writing but also in dealing with people, will be greatly welcomed. "He has a very warm character," says a friend. "He's very witty and a great conversationalist. He also has the happy knack of sending people up, but gently, to disarm them."

Whereas once Black's relationship with Bolland, about which they have both always been completely open, might have been the subject of gossip, it may even be of benefit in his new position. "He's got a contemporary mind," says Cowling, "and he won't sound stuffy and silly. He'll sound up to date."

What could be more up to date - or even New Labour-ish, as one paper put it - than the penthouse he shares in Clerkenwell with Bolland, and his two Russian blue cats, Victoria and Alexandra, who "control him" at home?

Nor could his smart but not overly formal attire ever be called stuffy. Attention to dress is a noted feature of the couple. "I imagine that if they went to the country for a weekend," offers another friend, "they would probably bring a change of clothes for every three hours."

Although Black will miss his colleagues at the PCC he has been considering moving from some time. Next year he would have served eight years as director, and he told friends a couple of months ago that he had informed Sir Christopher Meyer, Lord Wakeham's successor as chairman of the PCC, that he would like to leave by next March, probably to return to the public relations industry. Instead the role of Tory press chief came up, and within six days of the first approach his new position was confirmed.

He will not miss the criticism over his friendship with Wade, which turns overnight into a boon, nor the suggestions when Bolland worked for the Prince of Wales that all three were manipulating newspaper coverage of the royals. The two claimed to operate a "Chinese wall" on such matters at their home, but few believed it. "Guy gets quite hurt by criticism, especially if he feels it's unjustified," says a friend. "Mark is able to brush it off, but it isn't so easy for Guy. He's really a sweet, kind person beneath the polished surface, a bit more sensitive than Mark."

So far Black has been the lesser-known of this 21st-century power couple and has managed to keep his private life out of the spotlight. His expertise at networking does not mean that he fails to appreciate less raucous pleasures. He is a keen reader of biographies, and has a taste for opera, although no more modern than the romantics. His recent 39th birthday soirée was a quiet, early evening drinks party hosted by his friend David Chipp, a former editor of Reuters and editor-in-chief of the Press Association.

He is aware that his new job, in which he will be dealing with many of his former clients from a different perspective, will bring new challenges. "The PCC is endlessly fascinating," he says, "and it was difficult to think of something that would be equally challenging. This will be." The sense of humour he demonstrated debating with Kelvin MacKenzie earlier this year will be invaluable. "If you want to know why the newspapers are so bloody boring," complained the former Sun editor, "blame Guy Black of the PCC." "Under Kelvin," replied Black, "The Sun ran a series about sex in the suburbs and we had a host of complaints from people about their privacy being invaded which we upheld. Kelvin published our PCC adjudication under the headline 'PCC backs wife swappers'."

Such a sense of humour might come in handy dealing with the tricky issue of the powder compact.


Born: Guy Vaughan Black 6 August 1964 to Thomas and Monica Black. Has a non-identical twin brother, Tim.

Partner: Mark Bolland, former director of the Press Complaints Commission and former deputy private secretary to the Prince of Wales.

Education: Brentwood School, Essex; Peterhouse College, Cambridge.

Career: Graduate trainee, corporate banking division of BZW 1985-86; desk officer at Conservative Research Department 1986-89; special adviser to Secretary of State for Energy, John Wakeham, 1989-92; account director of Westminster Strategy 1992-94; associate director of Lowe Bell Good Relations 1994-96; Conservative member of Brentwood District Council 1988-92; director of the Press Complaints Commission 1996 to 2003.

Recreations: Music, playing the piano, reading.

He says: "In their bones, most politicians would like to do something to control the press and know they can't."

"I long ago got bored rigid with the comings and goings of the Royal Family."

They say: "A model of integrity, expertise and rigour." - Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission