Minister of Truth runs Labour's dirty war of words

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Brian Wilson, Labour's new Disavower in Chief, has issued his first denial. His 10-strong team, charged with correcting Tory lies, is no longer called the Rebuttal Unit. "That has a very negative ring to it," he says. "I would rather think of it as a positive force. And the best means of defence is attack."

Viewed in this light, perhaps the combative Scotsman could call it the Head-Buttal Unit. At present, his outfit goes by the military-sounding title of Attack Task Force. Even a lowly research person has the title of "political intelligence assistant". New Labour, New Model Army.

The task force, which costs pounds 200,000 a year to run, is based in the media centre in Mandelson Tower, on London's Millbank. Wilson's rebutters can gain immediate access to millions of words written or spoken by the Conservatives through Excalibur, a computer database so sophisticated that Tory Central Office has been forced to buy it.

Everybody, it seems, has to be in the business of instant hostilities. The Liberal Democrats would like to be, but they haven't the resources.

Adrian McMenamin, a 30-year-old astro-physics graduate of Edinburgh University, is Labour's civil servant who runs the monitoring-and-reaction show. He has at his fingertips six years of Press Association tapes and every speech made by ministers and the Opposition over the past 10 years. "And we can turn around a Today programme transcript faster than the BBC," said a party apparatchik.

Labour's secret weapon is Andrew Scholl, who worked for the Australian Labor Party and is a computer wizard whose skills are talked about in hushed tones. He has at his command volumes of copy laboriously fed into the system by dedicated helpers.

It may not be enough. Brian Wilson was Labour's junior Transport spokesman in an uneasy alliance with Clare Short before taking up his aggressive new role. "We knew him then as the Flying Scotsman," smirked a Westminster insider. "What we are worried about is that he will have to drop the `f'."

Nobody in the know detects a close relationship between him and Labour's media guru, Peter Mandelson MP, his immediate boss. Nor does he seem to be a particular pal of his boss of bosses, Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor and party head of strategy, who famously does not speak to Mr Mandelson other than in public. Who reports to whom, and when, and whether teeth are obligatorily gritted, is already a fertile source of entertainment in the party.

Mr Wilson, a former journalist, sees three strands to his job. "Trying to stop them telling lies about us, going on the political offensive, and being more outgoing about the very good stories we have to tell about what the Labour government will do."

The reality can be rather more banal. Last week, Conservative Central Office discovered that Margaret Beckett was speaking at the conference of the Union of Communication Workers, which had just balloted in favour of a Post Office strike. Ah ha! A potential gaffe here! (Rebutters are on permanent gaffe alert: "gaffe" is never used in real life, but in the Alice in Wonderland world of politics it is the most overworked word around).

Brian Mawhinney, the abrasive chairman of the Tory party, dashed off a stinging rebuke, demanding to know the shadow President of the Board of Trade's attitude to the threatened strike.

Labour was caught on the hop, insisting first that Mrs Beckett was not attending the seaside union bash, and then admitting she would be there but not speaking. Advantage, Tories. But next day the Labour MP Doug Hoyle asked the Prime Minister if he shared Lady Thatcher's views about not sending cheques to Brussels. John Major gave a lame reply about having answered the question some time previously. Oh yes? asked the rebutters. Which of the many answers spewed out by Excalibur? Off went a letter to Downing Street, demanding to know which was the right answer. Deuce. Then the Government unwisely boasted of its "good" record on gun control. The rebutters rushed out a statement by shadow Home Affairs minister Alun Michael pointing out the Tories' rejection of tough measures proposed by Tony Blair. Advantage Labour.

At Wednesday's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting, down-to-earth MP Joe Ashton questioned the wisdom of putting up front-bench spokesmen for the Sunday TV chat shows, on the grounds that the newspapers following up the story are only interested in exposing discrepancies and building them up into "splits". The rebutters are forced into overdrive.

David Hill, Labour's chief media spokesman, complains: "National newspapers concern themselves more with `gaffes' than with substance. What you get are `split' stories. The Tory papers know that what people in this country dislike most about political parties is disunity, and therefore their aim is to find gaffes with the simple purpose of building them up to scream at their readers that Labour is in disarray."

However, both major parties are on the same giddy carousel, and neither dares get off first. The one who does risks losing, and that is the sole test of all this fact-upon-fact bravado. How will Labour know if its money has been spent wisely?

"When we win," smiles David Hill.