Politics: Labour trips up over claim that Ffion travelled free

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The Independent Online
The Tories called on Tony Blair to give one of his spin doctors a dressing down last night for a `scandalous smear' suggesting William Hague's wife, Ffion, had flown to Hong Kong at the taxpayers' expense. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, reports on red faces around No 10.

A senior party source close to No 10 was red faced last night after briefing journalists that William Hague's wife, Ffion, had gone to Hong Kong on free tickets provided by the Government for the handover ceremony in the former colony.

The briefing was an attempt to deflect criticism of ministers for travelling with their partners or spouses at the taxpayers' expense. But it backfired when it turned out to be incorrect.

The Tories hit back by insisting that she had not gone at the taxpayers' expense, and Michael Howard, the shadow Foreign Secretary, demanded an apology in a letter to the Prime Minister attacking it as "a scandalous attempt to smear the Leader of the Opposition and his wife".

The gaffe came as Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, spearheaded the Government's attempt to draw a line under recent public relations disasters, from cuts in single-parent benefits to reports of the rift between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

Mr Straw insisted it was not a relaunch. And it was not rebranding new Labour. He reminded disenchanted traditional Labour voters that the Government's support was based on a "new coalition". It was important to recognise that, he said. "New Labour won because it was able to appeal to a wide range of people - not just traditional Labour voters but many others who voted Labour for the first time in May."

Mr Straw, one of the leading modernisers in the Cabinet, asserted that Mr Blair's government was firmly based in the "radical centre" of British politics, and reached out beyond the traditional left-right divide. "Where we can work together with other parties or with people with no party political background, we will do so. We are not driven by dogma but by ideas and pragmatism," he told a party meeting in Kings Lynn, Norfolk.

Taking up Mr Blair's appeal to the Cabinet not to indulge in "departmentitis", he said: "Too few of us have been spelling out the larger picture."

Mr Blair gave the task of spearheading the Government's fight back to Mr Straw partly because he accounted for himself well during a difficult week at new year of speculation over his son's involvement with cannabis. The Tories claimed yesterday that he was also allocated the task to put Gordon Brown in his place. "Tony Blair is trying to take back control of his government's welfare policies from Gordon Brown and in an attempt to do so, he has briefed against Brown and promoted his ally Jack Straw," said Iain Duncan-Smith, the Tory spokesman on social security.

Mr Hague's Shadow Cabinet told at a strategy meeting this week that they have been hurting Labour by claims that ministers seem to be spending too much on themselves and their partners. As a result, the Tories have tabled dozens of questions about ministerial expenditure on their grace and favour flats and trips abroad with their spouses or partners

The meeting was also told that Labour still had a long lead in the polls. Mr Hague is convening another strategy meeting next week to try to inflict more damage on Mr Blair.