Tory spin doctors to `mind' Major in run-up to election

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Conservative party "spin doctors" are to play an increasing role behind the Prime Minister in the run-up to the election in an attempt to avoid damage like the row over caning.

The outline plan for drafting Tory party press officers into more of John Major's programme was agreed before the debacle over caning. But insiders believe it highlighted the difficulties they are facing.

The drive to regain the initiative from Labour could raise questions of a conflict between the interests of the party and government.

The Prime Minister's press office at Downing Street is staffed exclusively with civil servants. All party business is handled by the Tory Central Office press office, under Charles Lewington.

Party sources were highly irritated last week by the way the caning issue was handled by Downing Street. It was the Prime Minister's office which last week confirmed that Mr Major had discussed the Government's stand on caning with Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education.

That led to speculation in the press that Mrs Shephard had been given "six of the best" by Mr Major. That was denied by No 10, although Mrs Shephard openly declared in the Commons that she disagreed with the Prime Minister.

Central Office press officers were left with the task of "damage limitation" after the Prime Minister's office confirmed that Mr Major had made a telephone call to Mrs Shephard.

Tory press officers are now going to take an increasing role in handling Mr Major's tours. Last week, when he visited Nottingham, he was accompanied by Downing Street press officers.

Senior Tory sources confirmed that the Central Office press officers will be seeking to act as Mr Major's minder on such visits in the months leading to the election. They point out that Labour cannot complain, because they plan to appoint Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's chief press officer, to the Downing Street post, if Labour wins the election.

The Downing Street press operation will remain in civil service hands, until the election.

The Prime Minister, meanwhile, is planning a more aggressive campaign than the 1992 election tour, when he led a Tory fightback from a soap- box. "He is going to go into the Labour heartlands," said the source.

The campaign itinerary has yet to be worked out, but Mr Major is planning to visit staunch Labour areas, such as Liverpool. He told last month's Conservative Party conference that he would be out on the street, across Britain in the coming election.

Mr Major's aides said he would still concentrate on the key marginals, but his tour will take in areas not covered in the 1992 campaign.