Campbell gives ministers campaign orders

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Indy Politics

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, has ordered ministers to break out of their ivory towers in Whitehall and launch Labour's campaign for the next general election immediately.

Mr Campbell reflected Mr Blair's concern that overworked ministers have become too bogged down with their departmental briefs and told them to devote more time to promoting the Government's achievements. The Downing Street press secretary issued the edict when he addressed a meeting at the Cabinet Office of the special advisers who act as political aides to ministers, and asked them to relay the message to their bosses.

Some of Mr Campbell's ideas could be controversial. For example, he urged ministers to stop referring to the "current" and "previous" government in media interviews and speeches. Instead, he said, ministers should use the phrases "with Labour" and "under the Tories" respectively. He added that they should accuse the Conservatives of "making a mess" of issues and argue that Labour was now "putting things right".

Although Mr Campbell is one of Mr Blair's closest aides and was stating his views, some Labour MPs believe he wields too much power and claim that a non-elected official should not give orders to ministers. His suggestions could upset some civil servants, who are determined to maintain the traditional neutrality in statements issued by Whitehall departments.

"There is too much civil-service speak," one government source said yesterday. "We are not saying it is the job of civil servants to claim the credit for a Labour government; that is for ministers to do. But ministers receive masses of briefing material from their civil servants and they should give it a more political edge. Language is absolutely crucial."

Mr Campbell's move will be seen as a clear signal that Mr Blair intends to call a general election in a year's time. "We know that elections are not won or lost during a three-week campaign but in the 12 months beforehand," the source said.

At the meeting, Mr Campbell paid a back-handed compliment to the rival spin doctors employed by the Conservative Party, saying: "They are getting their act together." He said it was often easier for the Opposition to set the media than the Government. The source added: "In opposition, you don't do anything, you just say things. It is easy to agree a strategy and stick to it. In government, ministers get bogged down and you need a lot of co-ordination between departments."

Mr Campbell urged ministers to spend more time setting out what Mr Blair calls "the big picture" - the Government's overall strategy. He encouraged ministers to make speeches about the Government's achievements rather than those of their own departments.

"Too many ministers are keeping their heads down; they should raise their sights and speak politically," said one Labour source.

There is also growing pressure from Labour MPs for ministers to "sell" the Government's policies in order to win back disenchanted voters in the party's traditional heartlands. Backbench leaders say that ministers have been reluctant to portray measures such as the national minimum wage and working families' tax credit as "redistributing wealth" because Mr Blair does not want to alienate middle-class voters.