Tories pick their man for the message

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The tabloid journalist Charles Lewington was appointed yesterday to run the Tory party's general election campaign, and began work immediately as director of communications at Central Office, in London.

Mr Lewington, former political editor of the Sunday Express, said he took the job because he believed John Major would lead the Tories to a fifth term of office. He replaces Hugh Colver, who resigned last month, blaming ministers for "public relations disasters" because they "behaved as if they are in office by divine right".

Sir Bernard Ingham, Baroness Thatcher's former press secretary, said he doubted that Mr Lewington could turn round the Tories' image in the 17 months, at most, before the next election.

"If the Government doesn't get its presentation right, then Tory Central Office won't get it right," he said, declining to say whether he viewed Mr Lewington as the man for the job. "An entire NHS of Tory spin doctors is of no avail if a Tory government is unclear of purpose, indecisive and irresolute."

Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, said: "Charles was the first and only candidate I approached for this post, after careful consideration" - a formula which omitted informal approaches to other journalists on his behalf by his parliamentary secretary, Alan Duncan, MP for Rutland.

Mr Lewington, 36, is well-connected in Tory circles, and boasts a number of recent scoops based on close contacts in Central Office - including the revelation that an official party video of the Blackpool conference had been doctored, cutting shots of rapturous applause for Michael Portillo's speech into that given by Dr Mawhinney.

Labour was jocularly dismissive of the pounds 70,000-a-year appointment. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, was said to have taken the day off to "celebrate the good news". A colleague said Mr Campbell would be contacting Dr Mawhinney to congratulate him for showing his "customary judgement".

Labour also carried out a quick search through the cuttings and drew attention to a story Mr Lewington wrote on the Sunday before Dr Mawhinney was appointed Tory chairman. "The Prime Minister has chosen his new party chairman in a wide-ranging 'reconciliation' reshuffle," he wrote. "He wants his loyal [leadership] campaign manager Viscount Cranborne, leader of the House of Lords, to be at his side in the run-up to the general election."

Expectations of Mr Lewington are high, as Tory MPs have openly expressed their envy of the speed, skill and size of Labour's media operation led by Mr Campbell. Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, renewed his attack on Mr Campbell when he took John Major's place at Question Time in the Commons yesterday.

He demanded: "Is it the intention of Labour, if they were elected to power, to put Alastair Campbell as a civil servant into No 10 Downing Street in order to inject Labour Party propaganda into the presentation of government policy?"

Labour has already said Mr Campbell would be seconded as a civil servant as the Prime Minister's press secretary, as was Joe Haines under Harold Wilson.

Mr Lewington said: "My approach to this job will be simple. I do not consider myself to be a spin doctor.

"Spin doctors invent sound-bites and then spin a web of deceit around them.

"Sound journalists are best suited to selling sound policies. I am honoured that the Prime Minister and the party chairman have the faith in me to do just that."

If the Tories lose, Mr Lewington retains a return ticket to journalism, in the form of a handsome farewell from Lord Stevens, chairman of United News and Media, owners of the Sunday Express.

"Charles is a brilliant journalist and we are very sorry to see him leave the Sunday Express. I see him as editor material and he will be welcome back here any time," he said.