Smith Square gears up for battle

Less than a year before the general election the Tories have lost their director of communications. But the party machine is under firm control, says Donald Macintyre
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The Independent Online
On paper, it could scarcely be more catastrophic. At a time that could be less than a year before a general election in which, for the first time in a generation, the Conservative Party cannot reliably count on the support of the Tory press, Hugh Colver, the director of communications and the party's top media man, walks off the job.

The man who replaces him, Tim Collins, is able and ultra-focused. But unfortunately, because he is fighting a seat himself, he will not be there for the election when the skills of a Labour team led by Alastair Campbell and David Hill, two of the shrewdest spin doctors in the business, really come into their own.

So, for the second time in six months the Conservative Party begins a long and frustrating search for someone skilful and tough enough to take on one of the most daunting and important jobs in the campaign.

It is the sort of problem that underlines the validity of an often repeated question: who would be a Tory party chairman in the run-up to a general election? In his memoirs, Kenneth Baker describes a conversation he had with his adviser Tony Kerpel when it looked as if Margaret Thatcher might appoint him to the chairmanship of the party in the summer of 1989. Kerpel paused only briefly before replying succinctly: "Victory is hers; defeat is yours."

The remark elegantly summarises why few politicians ever jump at the chance of taking over the party in the second half of a parliament; it is a job in which the incumbent is ideally placed to be the fall-guy for electoral disaster.

Kerpel's point illustrates how vital it is for an ambitious party chairman - and Central Office proved the graveyard of Baker's leadership ambitions - to make the party headquarters into a fighting machine that works. And the most jaundiced critics argue that the past four general elections were won despite Central Office rather than because of it. Suddenly, thanks to Tony Blair, that no longer looks possible.

So, what are the problems at Smith Square? It is an easier question to pose than to answer. Baker records Kerpel as saying that Central Office - in contrast to Baker's Department for Education which he was arguing Baker should not leave - "was not amenable to the same skills and could be a nest of intrigue with its factionalised departments".

That is borne out by one ex-Central Office hand who complains that for too long it has been "clogged up with Mr Bumble and Mrs Witter endlessly stabbing each other with hat pins and fighting their turf wars".

There have been complaints of amateurishness in its approach to polling. There have been rivalries within the office that provided a fertile ground for larger tensions - for example, those between Lords Tebbit and Young which dogged the 1987 election campaign. And life has not got much easier since then.

With the exception of Colver and Collins, the party's presentation has suffered from having men in the communications job with advertising and marketing expertise - but little or no real politics. This was a habit that started in the early Eighties with Christopher Lawson - known accurately, if unkindly, as the Man from Mars.

Morale could not but be adversely affected by the cuts - of about 40 staff - which Jeremy Hanley, Brian Mawhinney's accident prone-predecessor, forced through to meet the demands of an organisation that still has an overdraft of about pounds 11m.

The party is at a historic low in the opinion polls. Some academics estimate that the party's membership is even lower than Labour's - currently at 350,000 and rising. Finally, as Young, a rare case of a front-rank politician who wanted the job but never got it, used to complain, no one has ever treated Central Office as a small- to medium-sized business with a pounds 5m turnover and thought out from scratch what its goals are and how can they be reached.

All the signs are that the ambitious and single-minded Mawhinney is determined to change a good deal of all this - and is not too fussy about the consequences. He did not engineer Colver's departure - far from it. But Colver's departure, which has a complex of reasons of behind it, may nevertheless be a symptom of an acutely painful period of transition.

As one of Whitehall's most experienced and intelligent information directors, with a spell at senior level in private industry, Colver was no stranger to the black arts of corporate and government communication. But he is also a nice and truthful man who has been quite frank in saying that he may have lacked the party-political obsessiveness, the hard-edged "zapping" skills of the modern spin doctor.

Neverthless, he jumped rather than was pushed. Out, too, has gone Paul Judge, the chief executive once greeted as the saviour who would put Conservative Central Office on a firm business footing. Out has gone Andrew Lansley - to fight a seat and make some money. His departure has allowedMawhinney to appoint (an imaginative stroke, this) Danny Finkelstein, former director of the Social Market Foundation.

For a notoriously old-fashioned organisation, Finkelstein is a thoroughly modern policy wonk who is comfortable at the ideological coalface and understands where the Blair Labour Party is coming from.

For good measure, Mawhinney has also promoted the personable and efficient 32-year-old Vanessa Ford as head of his private office, leaving John Gardiner, 38, who has been private secretary to five successive chairmen, to go off to the British Field Sports Society. In charge of the day-to-day operation Mawhinney has put his trusted deputy Michael Trend, the MP for Windsor.

All in all, as Colver attests, Mawhinney is a man who knows what he wants. "He can be quite curt and short. He interrogates people pretty hard and then wants to know what they are doing. He just needs to remember that these people are not government department people. They are committed to the cause, but they are volunteers who are not paid very much."

However, Mawhinney almost certainly judges that he cannot afford to be sentimental. Now the pre-election period is at hand there is, in the phrase beloved of electorally excited politicians, "a war on". It may be rough but Mawhinney shows more determination than most of his predecessors to whip the Smith Square carthorse into shape. But first he has to find a top-flight media person for the election; he or she had better be good.