Spin doctor at heart of 'risky' PR campaign

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"Sheila Gunn takes risks she shouldn't take, but the responsibility lies with Brian Mawhinney," was the judgement of one observer yesterday, writes John Rentoul.

She is well-liked among Westminster journalists, having been one herself until she was appointed senior press officer at Conservative Central Office at the beginning of last month. But she has appeared too eager to carry out the Tory chairman's ruthless campaign to match Labour's slick public relations.

A secretary on the Times news desk in the 1970s, she became a parliamentary reporter, editor of the Times Diary and then a political correspondent. She became famous as the third of five girlfriends of Steven Norris, the transport minister, when the amorous adventures of the 50-year-old former car dealer, who is separated from his wife, were revealed in the tabloid press.

On her arrival at Central Office, she immediately made a difference. Tory press officers had been heavily outnumbered by their Labour rivals who regularly toured the newspaper offices behind the Commons press gallery. From her first day, Miss Gunn was a regular presence. But the Tories' problem of pushing poorly checked stories did not improve. Just this week, three stories emanating from Central Office have blown up in the Tories' faces.

On Tuesday, Miss Gunn's use of Home Office information became the subject of a front-page story in the Guardian, which claimed she had given journalists confidential information about the case of a Nigerian seeking asylum, Abiodun Igbindu, who has been in detention since June.

Doug Henderson, Labour's immigration spokesman, accused Central Office of using underhand tactics to get the Asylum and Immigration Bill through the Commons. "It is outrageous and probably a foretaste of what they are going to do on the Bill. Their aim is to stir up public pressure by using certain information to continually put cases before the public," he said.

Tory Central Office also promoted the complaints of the head teacher of a school in Tony Blair's constituency, who said local Labour activists had "intimidated and misled" parents in the ballot to convert to grant- maintained status which the head teacher lost this week. The story first appeared in the Sunday Express on 26 November and was used in the Commons to try to embarrass the Labour leader by Sir Fergus Montgomery (C, Altrincham and Sale) and Tim Devlin (C, Stockton S). It was the front-page lead in the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, ordered an investigation into the claims, and her department's press release was faxed out by Tory Central Office. By then the head had decided he did not want further action. He said: "Tony Blair is an honourable man. He is nothing to do with it. I will be voting for him at the next election. It's wrong for the Tories to drag him into it."

On Thursday came the worst mishap so far. A front-page story, again in the Telegraph, reported a speech to be given that night by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, warning the judges "not to overstep their powers" by interfering in political decisions.

That afternoon Lord Mackay issued an unprecedented denial insisting not only that he was not giving a speech that night but that he did not hold the views attributed to him.

It quickly emerged that the Telegraph story was written on the basis of a briefing by Miss Gunn, who in turn was quoting from a draft of a speech which had circulated among Cabinet ministers. The assumption was that Mr Mawhinney had decided this would be a good story and asked Miss Gunn to put it out with some "top-spin" on it.