Former Tory political secretary appointed to counter spin image

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will appoint a prominent former Conservative aide as head of the Government's communications machine today in another attempt to shed Labour's image as being obsessed with spin

Tony Blair will appoint a prominent former Conservative aide as head of the Government's communications machine today in another attempt to shed Labour's image as being obsessed with spin.

Howell James, who was political secretary to John Major when he was Prime Minister, is to fill a new £120,000-a-year civil service job as permanent secretary in charge of communications.

Unusually, the post was recommended after a review of the Whitehall press and publicity machine by a committee on which Mr James served.

Changes to the Downing Street press operation will also be announced today. The shake-up follows the departure last autumn of Alastair Campbell, the director of communications and strategy at No 10, a political aide who was Mr Blair's closest ally. By replacing him with a civil servant, the Government hopes to end the controversy over spin.

Mr James will put his shares in a public relations company, Brown Lloyd James, into a blind trust while he works for the Government to prevent any conflict of interest. As a former BBC corporate affairs director, he may try to rebuild relations between the Government and the public broadcaster following the row over its report alleging that Downing Street "sexed up" its dossier on Iraqi weapons.

Mr James, a Cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, also worked for Capital Radio, TV-am and Cable and Wireless.

The Liberal Democrats criticised the costs of the No 10 press office yesterday, which have more than doubled to £1.4m since Mr Blair came to power. During Mr Major's final year in office, the bill was £597,240. David Laws, the party's Treasury spokesman, said: "If the Prime Minister wants to help the Chancellor cut waste, he should start with his own office."

Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "This has to be seen in the context of the increasing demands of a 24-hour media ... We endeavour to be cost-effective."

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