Tories attack Labour's charade of spin manipulating spin doctors

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Downing Street "spin doctors" were accused last night of leaking the MI6 inquiry of Chris Patten and the "reprieve" for the royal yacht Britannia as a smokescreen to cover for a series of blows to Labour's image, including Robin Cook's affair with his secretary.

The Shadow Home Secretary, Sir Brian Mawhinney, accused the Prime Minister's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, and Peter Mandelson, the duty minister during the holiday period, of manipulating the press to stop the shine being taken off celebrations for Labour's first 100 days in office.

Sir Brian, the former Tory party chairman, alleged that the Downing Street information machine used press briefings about Britannia and the MI6 inquiry to take attention away from the series of blows to Labour's image.

He claimed that Downing Street feared the weekend newspapers would be dominated by the break-up of the Foreign Secretary's marriage, and that it would be damaging for the Government coming on top of the allegations against Labour figures in a suicide note by the Scottish MP Gordon McMaster, and the party's defeat in the Uxbridge by-election.

Downing Street was aware last week that details of Mr Cook's relationship with his secretary were about to break in the press on Sunday. Sir Brian said they used the briefings to stop the public coming to terms with the tarnished image of Labour in office.

"Robin Cook has been in the news this weekend and it is understandable they would want to deflect attention away from Mr Cook's private activities. That is the same Mr Cook who has been lecturing us on high ethical standards from this Labour government - we now know what new Labour ethics are starting to amount to," Sir Brian said on BBC radio.

"I think there is media manipulation going on precisely to deflect attention away from the Uxbridge by-election defeat, from the difficulties in the private lives of ministers, and the problems of Lord Simon, and the suspension of the Labour Party in Doncaster. All of these are stories which had they been related to the Conservative Party a few months ago would have been splashed from the top of the news to the bottom of the news, day in and day out."

Mr Mandelson, Minister Without Portfolio, is due to host a press conference on Friday with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, at Labour's Millbank campaign headquarters, and the Tories believe Downing Street feared it would be tarnished.

Defence ministers had no knowledge of the so-called "reprieve" for the royal yacht until they read it in the Sunday newspapers. They were dismayed by reports of a plan to carry out a pounds 50m refit and feared they were being "bounced" into the decision and, as reported exclusively in yesterday's Independent, angrily denied that any decision had been taken.

Downing Street yesterday confirmed that the refit was merely one of the options, although Mr Mandelson had appeared on Sunday to give it his backing.

In a further unusual development, Downing Street yesterday also said police had not been called into the inquiry into the allegations surrounding Mr Patten, leaving the threat of prosecution of the former Governor of Hong Kong, as reported in Sunday newspapers, looking overstated.

The Sunday newspapers were briefed that MI6 was investigating a possible breach of the Official Secrets Act involving Mr Patten. The Foreign Office refused to comment, but Downing Street sources freely confirmed the reports were true and Mr Mandelson confirmed the existence of an MI6 inquiry on BBC radio.

The briefing was seen by the Tories as confirmation of the way the party machine has taken over No 10 press office since Mr Mandelson and Mr Campbell arrived. They have merged the briefings on government and party business, and are keeping a check on the other press offices around Whitehall. It has coincided with the departure of at least three chief press officers, which some civil servants see as further evidence of Downing Street taking a grip of the government information machine around Whitehall.

The first to go was Jill Rutter, who left the Treasury last week after clashes with the special political advisers to the Chancellor, complaining it was like Princess Diana, with "three in a marriage". Andy Wood, chief press officer at the Northern Ireland Office for 14 years, stepped down and went on leave last Thursday.

It was also announced that Liz Drummond, chief press officer at the Scottish Office, is leaving next month, when the party and government machines will be campaigning for a "yes" vote in the referendums in Scotland and Wales.

The press officers are said to have gone amicably but civil servants have described it as being like "a night of the long knives". Downing Street under John Major was forbidden to brief on party business. His last press secretary, Jonathan Haslam, a career civil servant, was moved after the election to the Department of Education and Employment as director of information.