A perfect time to signal the end of the age of spin

Mr Blair would do better to look to those Labourites who have made careers outside politics
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The Independent Online

You don't have to believe that Alastair Campbell was even the indirect source of reports that he had already made his mind up to go after the Hutton report - and Downing Street is adamant that he wasn't - to see that they wouldn't necessarily hurt him. If it does become politically expedient for him to leave government when Lord Hutton reports, it wouldn't harm him for it to be known that he had intended to go all along. And if it doesn't prove expedient, he has said nothing that makes it imperative for him to go.

Equally, however, Mr Campbell has frequently considered leaving before. The big disadvantage to Tony Blair of his departure would be that he would be losing - just when it might matter most - an adviser, protector and lighting conductor for much of the criticisms that might otherwise be directed at the Prime Minister.

But the big advantage is that it would help to make a clean break with some of the past culture of government-media relations. Rather less of this is these days personally Mr Campbell's fault than is assumed; but if he does finally leave Downing Street, there are probably two ways to go.

One would be not to replace Mr Campbell at all but to dramatise the end of spin - and, perhaps as important, the perception of spin - by returning to the conventional civil service system that prevailed until Mr Blair came to power. Godric Smith, one of the Prime Minister's two official spokesmen, announced some time ago that he was going anyway. The other is Tom Kelly, who came from the Northern Ireland Office and is, like Mr Smith, an intelligent, straight, non-party political civil servant. Mr Smith could be replaced by one of the best departmental press spokesmen, such as the Foreign Office's John Williams or the Department of Transport's Simon Wren.

But Mr Blair may well decide that in the run-up to the election he still needs a political figure at his side as a Director of Communications. In which case, he would be sensible not to resort to someone from within the existing Downing Street staff because he is likely to judge them too valuable in the jobs that they are already doing. Phil Bassett, who runs the Strategic Communications Unit and is often touted as a possible successor to Mr Campbell, almost certainly falls into this category, as does Pat McFadden, widely valued as Mr Blair's political secretary and troubleshooter.

Instead, he would do better to look beyond the Government to a small, select group of men and women who have worked for the party before, still have unshakeable Labour convictions, but have subsequently made successful careers in the private sector - and therefore the world outside politics.

Which is where David Hill - the obvious, but by no means the only, figure in this category - comes in. With an inside knowledge of the party's long march back to electablility, both as Roy Hattersley's key adviser and as the party's spokesman under Neil Kinnock and John Smith in the early 1990s, Mr Hill combines high professionalism and what would be unswerving loyalty to a Labour government. As for the era of spin that helped to make New Labour the extraordinary force it became but has now long outlived its usefulness, Mr Hill, a director of the PR company Bell Pottinger, has the great advantage as a solution of never having been part of the problem. He's tough, trusted by journalists and respected across the party.

But whichever route it follows, there is a strong case for changing the methods as well as the personnel. To his credit, Mr Campbell has ushered in some big changes already - including the Prime Ministerial press conferences and on the record briefings by his spokesmen. This should go further - with the spokesmen's briefings being televised as well. And there should be a severe reduction in the whispers to a newspaperman here and a broadcaster there - a practice that has too often seemed to fit the message to its recipient. There's a mouthful of a word in the communications world called "disintermediation", which really means the use of technology to give out information of the same quality and at the same time to everyone who wants it. Those who have worked in business - where too much spin can be illegal as well as counter-productive - may be the best placed to put a version of this into practice in government.

And if the Government is driven crazy - as it sometimes seems to be - by stories based on anonymous sources, it could try not bothering to respond to them and seeing if the market doesn't let the stories find their own level - the good ones having legs and the bad ones dying a death.

But there's something else, which concerns the Prime Minister himself. It is to take a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book and speak his mind a little more, without worrying about what the effect on tomorrow's headlines will be. Last week he gave a rather fractious briefing on the flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong. It turns out he does irritable rather well, seeming in a curious way more likeable when he isn't trying to be liked. Mrs Thatcher, whose mouth was very connected to her brain, dropped the occasional catch. But she spoke her mind and almost never tailored what she said to different audiences. With his now huge experience, Mr Blair could do this if he chooses. And his relationship with the press and with his electors would benefit greatly.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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