Lance Price: 'When a big crisis blew up, Alastair had an answer'

Former special adviser tells Ian Burrell about life in Downing Street with Alastair Campbell
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Indy Politics

He may have appeared on the verge of tears on last weekend's Andrew Marr Show but Alastair Campbell was, in the estimation of Lance Price, "way, way, way the most powerful spokesman ever to be in Downing Street".

Price should know, having worked as Campbell's deputy as a special adviser to Tony Blair until 2001. He has also just completed a written analysis of the history of spin-doctoring and the evolution of the complex relationship between the media and Britain's prime ministers.

No government PR man, he argues, will ever again exert the degree of control that Campbell did. "I think that was the high point and I don't think it would be possible for any future communications director to have that level of influence any more," he says.

Price, 51, is so disturbed by the way politics is reported that he is calling for an overhaul of how Downing Street communications are handled. "There should be something on official government websites to properly prepare for announcements in the House of Commons," he says. "So many so-called scoops aren't scoops at all, they are often distortions that may work for the politician who has given it to the journalist. If you are a minister you highlight the good bits and bury the rest, you get a good splash and when the detail comes out people think they know the story already."

He would also like to see government spin-doctors identified on the Downing Street site. He suggested as much when he was special adviser but only two colleagues – the former journalists Andrew (now Lord) Adonis and Geoff Mulgan – agreed. "I thought the public had a right to know the names of special advisers like me who had clearly got a lot of power and weren't elected," he says.

Price, a former BBC political correspondent, is critical of the state of modern political journalism. "The number of genuine political scoops is pretty small," he says. "I don't know if it's less self-respect about their jobs, or the pressures they are under from their news desks, but I am aware of stories I have helped journalists with that appeared as a splash based partly on something that I had said which was an exaggeration, a distortion sometimes, of the truth."

But he argues that spin-doctoring is nothing new. Similar tactics were used at the start of the 20th century when David Lloyd George deployed William "Bronco Bill" Sutherland as his ring-master of an emerging media circus. "The parallels are uncanny, and not only the Conservatives but people in Lloyd George's own Liberal Party accused him of using Bronco Bill to do down his enemies, spread false stories and rewrite history in Lloyd George's favour."

The most effective political communications team, according to Price, was Margaret Thatcher and Bernard Ingham. "I think they were the best double act in Downing Street by a mile. Partly because she had the clarity of vision and he sold it. She wasn't obsessed by the media and didn't read the papers in detail. She relied on him to do that. Between them they got the media in perspective."

To viewers of the BBC show The Thick of It, Price is reflected in the cautious figure of Glenn Cullen (played by James Smith), trying to rein in the Campbell-like figure of Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi). Not that Price thinks Campbell's style was without merit. "He brought a clarity of vision, not just of how the media would cover the story but of the policy itself. When a big crisis blew up and you needed a quick, clear analysis, Alastair had an answer when others would say 'On the one hand this, and on the other that'. Having that quality tends to give you more influence."

Like Ingham, the new Conservative communications chief Andy Coulson is trying to keep his head down. "Campbell had a much higher profile than Coulson does. Most people have no idea who Andy Coulson is," says Price. "Alastair liked being in the media and didn't mind being controversial, in part to help Tony Blair by being a bit of a lightning conductor. But it doesn't do prime ministers any favours if their spokespeople become part of the story."