Peter Mandelson, still one of Tony Blair's closest allies and New Labour's original spin doctor, has been accused of fuelling the controversy over the Dr David Kelly affair and ignoring the Prime Minister's public call for restraint.
Mr Mandelson, regarded by many at Westminster as an authorised mouthpiece for Mr Blair, launched an attack on BBC executives yesterday and called the Today reporter Andrew Gilligan "rather shifty" and "a loose cannon".
Mr Mandelson's intervention has been criticised by MPs, who accused him of trying to deflect blame for the death of Dr Kelly away from Mr Blair and on to the BBC.
The former international development secretary Clare Short said Mr Mandelson was trying to create a "smokescreen" to draw attention away from Mr Blair and allegations that he exaggerated the threat from Saddam Hussein.
She said: "This assault on the BBC is just a complete distraction from the main questions about how we got to war in Iraq," she said. "Of course it's a complete tragedy that Dr Kelly was put under such pressure that he felt the need to take his life and that question needs to be looked into. But that is a separate question, that is a question of potentially the abuse of power, the role of the Downing Street machine and bringing a public servant to this position."
Mr Mandelson has embarked on a series of attacks in the past few days against the BBC's judgement. Yesterday, in an interview on the Today programme, he said Mr Gilligan was a "bit of the loose cannon" and urged the corporation to "activate some governing editorial mind".
On Sunday, a long opinion piece written by Mr Mandelson for The Observer accused the BBC of a "fixation" with Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's director of communications and strategy, and of wishing "to defeat him at all costs". He said there was a "poisonous relationship" between politicians and the media. His intervention after the death of Dr Kelly was criticised by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who said Mr Mandelson should "reflect hard and long" - a reference to the comments of Dr Kelly's widow after her husband's apparent suicide.
Mr Mandelson, the MP for Hartlepool, who has regular meetings with Mr Campbell and is consulted by Downing Street and Mr Blair on "spin", is unlikely to have come forward so publicly as a purely freelance exercise. At Westminster yesterday, friends of Mr Mandelson said he was "briefed to the hilt" and the Government would have been aware he was planning to intervene.
Mr Mandelson turned up the pressure on Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman, and Greg Dyke, the director general, in a withering personal attack. He said: "I think you have to draw the conclusion that Gavyn Davies, the chairman, and Greg Dyke in fact wanted to rally the governors on that Sunday evening for the sake of a wider battle that was being fought by the BBC with the Government.
"In the process the governors failed to do justice to themselves, or to the BBC," he added. "I think that they now need to sort this whole mess out and activate some governing editorial mind in the BBC ... I think it is an urgent need to sort out all this that is going on in the BBC before there is a further erosion of the BBC's credibility and its authority."
The BBC had not responded to Mr Mandelson last night.Reuse content