Bush and Blair's public spokesmen quit their posts on the same day

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Indy Politics

It could have been an episode from The West Wing called "Two Spin Doctors": the public spokesmen for George Bush and Tony Blair both announced yesterday that they were standing down.

Excitable journalists at Westminster sensed an obvious explanation. Was Godric Smith, the Prime Minister's official spokesman, leaving Downing Street to replace Ari Fleischer, who is to quit the same post at the White House?

Alas, the script was too good to be true. Although Bill Clinton once jokingly offered Alastair Campbell a job at the White House, the timing of yesterday's announcements was a coincidence.

Mr Smith, a self-confessed addict of The West Wing, the White House-based television drama, was bemused to learn that Mr Fleischer was quitting only an hour before he told Westminster journalists he would leave Downing Street this autumn. "It's seriously spooky," he said.

Mr Smith - who, like Mr Fleischer, is balding - modified a Blair speech about being "bold" to quip: "I am sure Ari and I would agree that spokesmen are at their best when at their baldest."

While Mr Fleischer, the public face of the Bush administration, is to move to the private sector, Mr Smith said he had an "open mind" about whether to remain a civil servant, even though he would command a much bigger salary in the outside world.

Mr Smith, 38, who is married with two children, said: "It is my eighth year at No 10. It is a very demanding job. It has been a great honour and privilege. I have got huge personal and professional respect for the Prime Minister. The times I have had at Downing Street have been fantastic - give or take the odd briefing."

Mr Smith had some bruising experiences with the media and had to apologise for unwittingly misleading journalists during two scandals - the row over the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and the "Cheriegate" affair in December over the help that the Australian conman Peter Foster gave the Blairs to buy flats in Bristol.

Despite this, he will leave with his reputation intact after journalists judged that he did not "lie" but, rather, had not been given the whole picture by his Downing Street masters.

Mr Fleischer, who is to stand down this summer, is a more prominent figure than Mr Smith because his briefings are televised. Having served in one of the most pressurised posts in Washington during some of the most momentous events in recent years, he said he wanted to enter the private sector and make money.

Mr Fleischer, 42, who got married six months ago, said he still enjoyed his job but wanted to do "something more relaxing - like dismantle live nuclear weapons".

He added: "I informed [Mr Bush] that after 21 years of nothing in my career other than government ... my time has come to enter the private sector to pursue more relaxing endeavours and see more of my wife." He said Mr Bush had ended the conversation by kissing his head.

While Mr Fleischer has admitted making some bad mistakes - suggesting, for instance, that "one bullet" in Saddam Hussein's head would be cheaper than a war - most Washington observers believe he has played a straight bat to even the curliest of questions.