Week that span out of control for new minder

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The Independent Online
AFTER TEN days of turmoil in the Tory party, Amanda Platell finally had some reason to relax when she joined Westminster journalists in the crowded bar of the Parliamentary Press Gallery on Wednesday night.

William Hague had just performed well when he addressed his MPs in an attempt to quell their disquiet over the leadership's rejection of Thatcherite, free-market solutions for health, education and welfare.

But the moment did not last long. Ms Platell, the former Fleet Street editor brought in by Mr Hague a month ago to improve his image, rolled her eyes and looked at the ceiling when news arrived of an opinion poll showing another fall in Tory support - and, even worse, in Mr Hague's perilously low personal ratings. Reporters noticed she made no attempt to put the best gloss on the poll; even the best spin-doctor in the world could find no comfort in it.

Ms Platell, 42, has had a baptism of fire, and some colleagues are wondering whether she is up to her arduous job. "It's not working," said one.

The former Sunday Express editor, who was previously managing director of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, refused to be interviewed or even talk "off the record" about her first month at Conservative Central Office. "The problems lie elsewhere, but she is not going to start dumping on other people," said one friend.

Ms Platell's critics claim she has been sucked into the bureaucracy at Central Office. "She spends most of her time in meetings, and meetings about meetings," said one. A senior Tory official added: "It's not the person who's wrong, but the role. She is supposed to be a strategic thinker, but she doesn't get time to think. It's all damage limitation."

Allies insist Ms Platell cannot be blamed for the disaster that has engulfed the party in the past two weeks, provoked by a speech by Peter Lilley, the deputy leader, widely seen as making a clean break with the Thatcher era.

But critics say she must take responsibility for "over-spinning" the Lilley speech before it was delivered, and the party's failure to damp down the story. "The strategy was right, but the media operation went wrong," sighed one demoralised Central Office staffer. "All our careful preparations have gone up in smoke."

Ms Platell's appointment as head of news and media got off to an inauspicious start when newspapers were told about a "relaunch" of Mr Hague as a "regular guy" who would be seen in shirt-sleeves rather than a suit. Two days later, he visited a school in Kent, wearing a suit - and was ridiculed by the newspapers, partly because they were angry at being excluded from the visit.

Ms Platell's policy of restricting access to her political master has alienated some journalists, particularly the broadcasters. ITN and Sky were furious when she granted BBC News an exclusive interview with Mr Hague on Wednesday. "She could take a few lessons from Alastair Campbell," said one broadcaster, referring to the way Tony Blair's press secretary keeps the television companies sweet.

Television journalists, who need more time than newspapers to plan their coverage, also complain that an already- reticent Central Office has become even more secretive on Mr Hague's engagements since Ms Platell replaced Gregor Mackay, who was sacked as his press secretary.

Ms Platell received another black mark for failing to prevent an undignified media scrum at the close of a press conference held by Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Secretary of State for Health. Reporters were amazed she did not whisk Ms Widdecombe away, but chose instead to leave her to face hostile questions on the Lilley speech. The event, designed to end the controversy, looked awful on television news bulletins. "It was a hack's dream and a spin-doctor's nightmare," said one lobby journalist.

Ms Platell's admirers at Central Office say she kept a cool head when others around her were losing theirs. She always had a smile and a reassuring pat on the back for distraught colleagues.

"She has steel," said one official who works closely with her. "She will make it work. She is not a quitter."