Tories deny 'spin doctor' to be installed at Number 10

Downing Street has rejected a rival to Labour's PR chief, writes Colin Brown
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The Conservative Party yesterday denied Chris Meyer, the Prime Minister's press secretary, is to be replaced by a political "spin doctor", when he returns to the diplomatic service.

The Tory leadership has rejected the idea of replacing Mr Meyer, a career diplomat, with a political apparatchik to match Alastair Campbell, the press secretary to Tony Blair.

Senior Conservative Party sources dismissed suggestions that Mr Meyer - who is being tipped to become ambassador in Bonn later this year - could be replaced by Charles Lewington, the recently-appointed press secretary at Central Office, or the Prime Minister's political secretary, Howell James.

The possibility of turning the Downing Street operation by the Prime Minister's press secretary into a more pro-active role was discussed by the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, and a team of ministers in charge of co- ordinating the Government's propaganda machine.

Some MPs would welcome the change, fearing that the Tories are at a disadvantage by having a civil servant running the Number 10 press office, and would like to see the job beefed up with a political operator at the helm.

Harold Wilson used Joe Haines, a journalist with Labour credentials - like Mr Campbell - to run the Downing Street press operation in the 1970s, when Labour last held power. MP Gerald Kaufman was also in the press office.

Baroness Thatcher brought in a civil servant, Bernard Ingham, who had previously acted as Tony Benn's chief press officer at the Department of Industry.

Sir Bernard became so close to Lady Thatcher that his off-the-record briefings were taken as "his master's voice". He was accused of overstepping the mark when he described John Biffen as "semi-detached", but Mr Biffen was quickly dropped from the Cabinet. Sir Bernard was also criticised for making it clear that Lord Howe, in a Cabinet reshuffle, had been given no extra powers as Deputy Prime Minister.

Lord Howe's humiliation at the hands of the Downing Street briefing operation may have contributed to the bitterness of his Commons attack on the Prime Minister, which led to Lady Thatcher's fall from office.

It showed that politicising the post of Number 10 press secretary can backfire on a prime minister who is isolated.

Sir Bernard's power and influence in Downing Street was seen by some in the Cabinet to raise constitutional questions about the ability of the Prime Minister to distance herself from her own Cabinet.

When John Major entered Downing Street, he immediately changed the system, appointing his former Treasury press officer, Gus O'Donnell, to the job. They had worked closely together when Mr Major was Chancellor.

Mr O'Donnell ran the Downing Street press office as a civil servant, carefully avoiding briefing about party matters.

But he was criticised for being too "laid-back" by Tory MPs when Mr Major's leadership ran into a crisis of confidence in1993, culminating in the leaked comments about Cabinet "bastards" and a report in The Independent that the Prime Minister had called some Euro-sceptics "barmy" on a visit to Japan and Malaysia.

Chris Meyer, a diplomat who had served in Moscow in the early 1980s, before being appointed as chief press officer at the Foreign Office, was plucked from the embassy in Washington to replace Mr O'Donnell, who returned to the Treasury.

Mr Meyer, who made it clear when he arrived that he would serve for two years before returning to the diplomatic field, has been scrupulous in avoiding briefing on party issues.

Party briefing was left to Central Office spin doctors, led by Tim Collins. His decision to fight a safe Tory seat led to the short-lived appointment of Hugh Colver, who walked out late last year, complaining about being required to indulge in too much party propaganda under the new party chairman, Brian Mawhinney.

A ministerial source said the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, head of the Civil Service, would object if the Downing Street post became a political appointment. The central office operation, under Mr Lewington, a former political editor of the Sunday Express, has been tightened up to take on the highly effective Labour press machine, under Mr Campbell.