Tory spin doctors to face challenge of 'rebuttal unit'

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The Independent Online
A five-strong hit team of Labour officials, including Matthew Taylor, head of the party's "Rebuttal Unit", is in Blackpool this week to mount the most high-profile propaganda offensive during a Tory conference.

The team of spin doctors and campaign specialists has been installed in the Sun Lounge of Blackpool's Savoy Hotel with the aim of defending Labour against the constant ministerial attacks to which it will be subjected this week.

The team, which also includes an experienced press officer from John Smith House, Adrian McMenamin, is being backed up by campaign staff and other members of the Rebuttal Unit in London as well as Alan Barnard, who is responsible for a series of initiatives including leafletting Tory representatives as they enter the Winter Gardens.

David Hill, the party's chief press spokesman, said the team was in Blackpool to "rebut lies, expose divisions, [and] reveal what is the real agenda of the conference".

Labour's media presence is considerably more visible than that of the Conservatives' last week which, except for contact with favoured newspapers, relied largely on a stream of faxes to correspondents in Brighton from Central Office.

The term "rebuttal" is borrowed from that used by strategists in Bill Clinton's US Presidential campaign to describe instant reaction to all claims about the Democrats by the Republicans. The term was used in the notorious leaked memo drafted in May by Philp Gould, the party's leading political consultant.

But there has also been an element of two-way transatlantic traffic in the growing rebuttal industry. Mr Hill was consulted by Democratic Party strategists about his success in the run-up to the 1992 British general election in "spoiling" a Sunday Times "smear" story that Neil Kinnock was named in KGB files as having met Soviet officials in London. Mr Hill called a Friday evening press conference to get his retaliation first in morning newspapers on the Saturday.

The Labour team will be staying in the Sky Hotel - a rather more modest establishment than the Savoy - on Blackpool's South Shore but are working long hours in the Savoy where a number of Tory delegates will be staying.

"We certainly haven't encountered any problems yet," said Mr McMenamin. But he admitted: "I don't think most people know we're here yet." Mr McMemanin added that the less successful the Tory party conference was, the less their services would be in demand. "We're quite relaxed about that," he added.

Meanwhile Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, was seen at the Winter Gardens yesterday in earnest conversation with Sir David English, chairman of Associated Newspapers, who wrote in a Spectator article last week that it was "not impossible" that the company's newspapers could support Tony Blair in the next election.