Come back, Alastair Campbell, all is forgiven

The Government needs its spin doctor, despite his faltering reputation, argues Andrew Grice, political editor of The Independent

Tuesday 18 July 2000 00:00

Reports of the demise of Alastair Campbell may prove to be exaggerated. Although Tony Blair's press secretary has withdrawn from the frontline job of briefing Westminster journalists on a day-to-day basis, those people who have been busy writing his political obituary may have been premature.

Reports of the demise of Alastair Campbell may prove to be exaggerated. Although Tony Blair's press secretary has withdrawn from the frontline job of briefing Westminster journalists on a day-to-day basis, those people who have been busy writing his political obituary may have been premature.

I suspect Campbell may resume normal service this autumn, by when he hopes the dust will have settled on the controversy over the Government's spinning to the media. To me, the suggestion that Campbell has become a liability to the Government, a problem rather than a solution, is ludicrous. He was, and remains, one of this Government's greatest assets. It would be crazy for Tony Blair to deprive himself of the services of the man he described as "the best in the business" in last Saturday's fly-on-the-wall BBC2 film, News From Number Ten, made by Michael Cockerell.

Yesterday's explosive leak of a memo written by Blair, admitting he is perceived as "out of touch" with the public on key issues, revealed that he was considering a more strategic role for Campbell as long ago as April.

Campbell told me he knew he would have to adopt a lower profile when he realised that "my name is in the papers more than William Hague's". He was well aware of "Whelan's law," invented by Charlie Whelan, who resigned as Gordon Brown's press secretary last year. "When the spin doctor becomes the story, it's time for the spin doctor to go," said Whelan. In the wake of the Cockerell documentary, Whelan called for Campbell to resign on the grounds that the programme made Blair "look like a prat" and a lesser figure than his press secretary.

One close colleague of Campbell explained yesterday: "The media is obsessed by spin and that was preventing us from getting our message across. So we had to pull Alastair out of the front line. We will let the media continue the war over our heads while we get on with running the country." It sounds fine in theory. In practice, the Government has had its worst month in media terms since coming to power in 1997. Campbell has briefed Lobby journalists only once a week instead of fronting the twice-a-day sessions. I doubt this is a coincidence.

Campbell could not have prevented events such as the spate of leaks and the cabinet's split over the single currency. But his skills as a fire-fighter were sorely missed when they were most needed.

It was no accident that it was Campbell who briefed the Lobby after Euan Blair was found by police in Leicester Square. If it was right to bring him back to handle that crisis, why was he absent from yesterday's Lobby briefing, which was bound to be dominated by the devastating leaked Blair memo?

The report itself showed that it is stupid to blame Campbell for the Government's addiction to spin. Mr Blair's demand for "eye-catching initiatives" on the family, "a tough public message" on crime and for him to be personally associated with them shows why some aides half-jokingly describe the Prime Minister as "the chief spin doctor". Yet this the same man who renounced spin in his ill-fated speech to the Women's Institute, when he said the Government didn't "need to fight over every headline".

According to the focus groups which the chief spin doctor takes so seriously, the public now regards spin as a symbol of what they dislike about the Government -a failure to deliver its promises to improve public services.

And yet spinning is not some evil process. It is what governments have always done. Even Tony Benn did it when he "modernised" Labour's party political broadcasts in the late Fifties. Take away the spin, and you surrender the ability to set the agenda. You leave a dangerous vacuum which the 24-hour a day media will fill on its own terms. True, it was probably a good idea for Campbell to spend more of his time on medium and long-term planning. Labour had become so sucked into day-to-day media handfighting that it lost sight of these horizons.

But his decision to leave the front line was partly a petulant act of revenge against the newspapers, depriving them of his services because they were giving the Government a hard time. "We are going to bore you to death with Godric, Godric and more Godric," I was told gleefully as Campbell withdrew. This was a rather unfair slight on Godric Smith, Campbell's deputy, who now holds the daily Lobby briefings. He is a respected civil servant but he does not know Blair's mind like Campbell and he cannot brief on Labour Party matters. Campbell, in contrast, is allowed to wear a party political hat because he is employed as a special adviser.

I can understand Campbell's frustration, and why the daily diet of hostile stories finally got under his normally thick skin. But there was no point in the star player sulking and taking his ball home.

Campbell's withdrawal was also a sign of a bunker mentality at Downing Street. The Blair regime is not good at crisis management. On the Richter scale of government crises, the current problems engulfing Blair are pretty small beer. But it doesn't feel like that when you are in the bunker.

Perhaps Campbell & Co should re-read the history of devaluation and the battles over trade union power which dominated the Labour administrations of the Sixties and Seventies. Have they forgotten John Major's hapless government?

Of course, newspapers are not blameless. "It is arguable that political journalists have been a corrosive force over the last 10 years," Elinor Goodman, Channel 4's Political Editor, told Essex University last Friday when she collected an honorary degree: "My own view is that the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the media has helped create an age of cynicism in which it is extremely difficult to have a rational debate - particularly on the issue of Europe." But Goodman argued that politicians were as much to blame as the media, which was now biting the hand that once fed it carefully cooked-up stories.

She hoped a more balanced relationship could now be restored, a view echoed yesterday by a Downing Street spokesman (Smith, not Campbell) who called for relations to be "put on to a more sensible footing". Smith said Number 10 had granted access to Michael Cockerell to allow someone "to have a dispassionate look and proper perspective" after all the fuss about spin and presentation.

My guess is that Campbell hoped the film would show Lobby correspondents as an anachronistic, self-serving clique, but I am not sure he succeeded. Nor, inevitably, was the film a truly fly-on-the-wall account of life at Downing Street. We now know that e-mails flew around the Number 10 system tipping off officials to be on the best behaviour when the cameras were present. Campbell, whose language in Lobby briefings was less colourful than usual, and some journalists inevitably played to the gallery.

It is ironic that Campbell became the story while the programme was being made. The Government is suffering more from his absence than the media, as the headlines of the past month testify. Campbell is making unnecessary enemies, and it would be pretty stupid to enter an election run-up at war with much of Fleet Street. There would only be one winner.

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