The fabled Labour spin machine looks ridiculous

'Mr Blair is paying the price for dispensing with the career civil servants in his private office'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Those that lived by spin died by spin. That will surely be the epitaph for this government when it eventually bites the dust. The two episodes, about the warring spin doctors in the transport department and Tony Blair's infamous letter to Romania, both follow from the involvement in government of political advisers who are given the status of civil servants.

The now-departed Miss Moore was resented by the press officers in her department who learned, from her, the tools needed to leak a story successfully. She managed to take her foe Martin Sixsmith with her. If ministers and their political staff constantly indulge in selective leaking and briefing, they should not be too surprised if it all ends in tears. By the end of this week the fabled Downing Street spin machine was looking ridiculous – not least for its own inability to stick to the same story for more than a few hours.

It is no longer plausible for the Prime Minister to claim, as his spokesman initially alleged, that he spent no more than a few seconds late last July appending his signature to a letter commending Lakshmi Mittal's steel company, the LNM group, to the Romanian prime minister. But he should have been protected from this embarrassment by a career civil servant advising that the receipt of a donation from Mr Mittal could compromise the authority of the Prime Minister.

Of course, it is sometimes impossible to protect Prime Ministers from themselves. Margaret Thatcher was often so appalled at some of the letters to which she was routinely asked to append her signature that on one occasion she reportedly wrote a postscript, in her own hand, along the lines: "That is the official position of the Government but my own views are..."

On this occasion, someone in Downing Street – whether it was the Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, is unclear – was eagle-eyed enough to amend the final draft of the letter by deleting the words "a friend". Suggestions that Mr Blair might have been playing on a possible friendship with Mr Mittal to impress the Romanian leader were deemed by someone in Downing Street to be a possible embarrassment for the Prime Minister.

Mr Blair is now paying the price for dispensing with the independent career civil servants who once formed the backbone of the Downing Street private office. Such independence guaranteed that prime ministers could be better protected from allegations of undue influence and charges of political favours in return for friendship or finance.

It is hard to imagine Charles Powell (Jonathan's brother) who, as a permanent civil servant, worked in Baroness Thatcher's office, getting his mistress embroiled in the kind of controversies now surrounding Mr Blair. The Political Secretary in No 10 in Lady Thatcher's day was paid for out of party funds and political appointees were firmly kept away from the process of government administration. Conversely, the press spokesman, Bernard Ingham, was a civil servant and knew that he lived on the other side of the Chinese wall; indeed, he never even attended Tory party conferences.

Mr Blair and his ministers are asking for trouble if their principal gatekeepers have the full status of civil servants (with the power to instruct other civil servants) while continuing to wear party political hats. Suspicion is bound to arise that Mr Powell, having once been a fund-raiser for Mr Blair when he was in opposition, appears to behave as though the business of the Labour Party and the business of government are one and the same.

The questions that need posing have still yet to be asked. What made the British ambassador in Romania decide to ask the Foreign Office for prime ministerial assistance? Was it a crude approach from Mr Mittal to him in the first instance suggesting, "I'm a mate of Tony. I've given a few thousand quid to his party"? What was the telegram traffic between the ambassador and the Foreign Office, and what then motivated the Foreign Office to involve Downing Street? In short, what was the process that led to the letter?

All of these are legitimate questions of scrutiny, which get nowhere in Downing Street briefings or Prime Minister's Questions.

This week the Commons Modernisation Committee published generally welcome proposals to beef up parliamentary scrutiny by establishing greater independence, recommending the abolition of the whips in the selection of select committee members. There is also recognition of a separate career path for backbench MPs, with the possibility of the payment of an additional salary to select committee chairmen. Robin Cook, the Leader of the House, should be congratulated on these proposals.

But there is one glaring omission. There needs to be a process to summon both the Prime Minister and his senior staff to a select committee specific to his duties. The modernisation report notes that select committees "have enabled MPs to hold the executive to account through more rigorous scrutiny than is possible on the floor of the House".

In the expanded role envisaged for greater scrutiny, matters such as "Garbagegate" and the Jo Moore affair should require the Prime Minister, Mr Powell, and the press officers to present themselves to an appropriate parliamentary committee specific to the Office of the Prime Minister. It is wrong that Mr Blair should be exempt from select committee scrutiny.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

Comments