Wanted: spin doctor to work a miracle

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LAST Thursday Brian Mawhinney stuck his head into Annie's Bar, home to the wise but shrinking band of Westminster journalists who prefer gin to gyms. Come in, come in, cried the hacks, their eyes reddened by alcohol and malevolent glee. The Conservative Party chairman, a hard man who loves a fight, looked at the eager, grinning faces - and fled.

The Muse of the black art of spin-doctoring has deserted the party she once inspired. Every attempt to fix "the agenda" last week backfired, allowing Tony Blair to claim in a speech in Glasgow on Friday that a "lie machine was at work, subverting government and reducing government to an extension of [Conservative] Central Office."

The Tories have been searching for a director of communications since Hugh Colver resigned last month, saying that the work of a propagandist did not allow for "serious debate".

The past week of PR disasters has shown the need for someone to take charge. First Central Office was accused by Labour of planting a "dirty tricks smear" against Abiodun Igbindu, a 25-year-old refugee from the Nigerian military junta, who is fighting deportation from Britain.

Then Donald Dewar, the Labour chief whip, said it was taking over the work of the Department of Education and briefing the press about a row - possibly real, possibly manufactured - about parents being "intimidated" into voting against allowing a school in Mr Blair's constituency to opt out.

Finally, Sheila Gunn, a former Times journalist who now works for Mr Mawhinney, induced the Daily Telegraph to run a front page story saying Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, would warn the judiciary not "to overstep their powers" by challenging ministers at a speech at the London Guildhall on Thursday. Not only, as the Telegraph was forced to admit the next day after a crushing protest from the Lord Chancellor, did Lord Mackay not intend to warn the judges about anything; he was not even due to speak at the Guildhall.

Meanwhile, Labour's small army of propagandists, a ruthless and efficient team when they are not bickering with each other, managed to persuade credulous political reporters that a Commons revolt by left-wingers against the party's low tax policy was a triumph for Mr Blair.

Conservative sources said they were looking for a journalist to become their new director - a right-wing version of Alistair Campbell, the former political editor of the former Today newspaper, who is Labour's chief spin doctor. The party hoped to announce an appointment in the New Year, they said.

But all the journalists rumoured in Westminster to be possible candidates said they would not take the job.

Jon Craig, the burly political editor of the Daily Express, who could match Mr Campbell pound for pound if it ever came to blows, was emphatic. "Not me, guv," he said. "I've never been approached and have not got the slightest interest in doing it. I don't want it." His colleague Charles Lewington, the suave political editor of the Sunday Express, raised suspicions when he did not return calls. But colleagues said he had laughed off all rumours that he would be interested in the job.

Andrew Grice, political editor of the Sunday Times, was more emphatic. The suggestion that he would even think about moving to Conservative Central Office was "complete rubbish". It had been spread by Scallywag, a scurrilous magazine, and the Guardian, a newspaper. Peter Oborne, political reporter for the London Evening Standard, offered another vigorous denial. And, if we were to find ourselves deceived, we could "come round and break my legs".

The problem for the Conservative Party is that, although the London press is largely owned and run by Conservatives, most papers are to the right of Mr Major. The only two senior loyalist commentators are Bruce Anderson and Matthew Parris. But the office of Mr Parris said the idea that the parliamentary sketch writer for the Times would be interested in the job was "rubbish", while Mr Anderson has just taken a new job with the Spectator magazine.

The Conservative Party is expected to offer a very large salary to any new director, but the prospect of working with Mr Mawhinney and of taking on what looks like a losing cause will put many off. The cruel laughter which followed the departing Mr Mawhinney from Annie's Bar will echo for a while yet.