Political spin at the court of Blair

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The Independent Online
THE CLARION call by Jack Cunningham, the cabinet enforcer, yesterday for an end to "unauthorised briefings" of journalists by ministerial advisers will raise a hollow laugh among many at Westminster who have become used to a daily diet of spin and counter-spin.

Every minister now has a special adviser, the euphemism for spin-doctor, individuals paid with public money to perform an essentially party political service. From Agriculture to the Foreign Office, each Whitehall department has one, sometimes two, political advisers ready to rebut the claims of the Tories and advance the Government's agenda. The American idea of a political aide who aggressively pushes a "line" to journalists worked superbly for Labour in opposition as it harried the Conservatives under John Major.

Tensions between different shadow ministers were known, particularly the unhappiness of the Gordon Brown camp that he had been forced out of the party leadership, but the desperate desire to win the general election meant dissent was negligible. It was only after the Government won its landslide victory in May 1997 that the cracks began to appear and the hidden factions slowly reasserted themselves.

Some observers now claim that the Blair administration resembles a medieval court, a Camelot where every knight at the Cabinet round table has his or her jealousies reinforced by their personal henchmen in the form of spin-doctors.

Some, such as Charlie Whelan, are so different from their ministers that they can speak the unspeakable. Others, including Joe McCrea, Frank Dobson's adviser, are like pets who resemble their owners and can be relied upon to give you their every thought. Of course, every cabinet has its divisions, and special advisers were first established under the Tories to get their message across more robustly.

But the Conservative advisers were often ineffectual and small in number compared with the professional and slick machine Labour built up, most of whose staff landed jobs in government immediately, often on large salaries that horrified civil servants. The Labour Government is also distinguished by so many career battles and personal fiefdoms that to simplify the issue into Brownites and Blairites is a mistake.

One of the main problems with the spin culture is that each adviser is appointed to an individual minister. As with football managers and their assistants, if the minister loses his job, so does the spinmeister. As a result, they are a fiercely loyal breed and, as has been seen most graphically in the Mandelson/Brown divisions, can use the tactics developed while in opposition to undermine fellow ministers.

The difficulty for Mr Cunningham is that ministers themselves, as well as their charges, are responsible for off-the-record briefings that promote their careers or causes at the expense of colleagues.

Once the spin-doctor genie has been let out, it may prove incredibly difficult to get it back into the bottle. Or, to paraphrase the Prime Minister's own press secretary, Alastair Campbell, attempts to end the spin cycle may just be "crap, that's C-R-A-P, crap".

The Spinmeisters

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL

Former political editor of the Daily Mirror, now Tony Blair's official press secretary. The man whose colourful language and sharp media antennae set the standard for other wannabe spinners.

CHARLIE WHELAN

The Chancellor's spokesman is not a former journalist and so retains healthy disrespect for lobby correspondents. Favourite word is "bollocks" - in reply to most media queries.

BENJAMIN

WEGG-PROSSER

Peter Mandelson's 26-year-old former aide mirrored his master's use of cunning to plant stories. Gentler approach than most, but still ruthless.

JOE McCREA

Adviser to Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, made his name in opposition as Labour scored hit after hit on the Tories' hospital closures. "Rottweiler" tendencies now subdued.

JOE IRVIN

Special adviser to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is the antithesis of the brash and duplicitous image of New Labour spin-doctors. Quietly effective and does not court lobby journalists.

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