Blair plans new 'Ministry of Truth' for the post-spin era

Andy McSmith,Jo Dillon
Sunday 31 August 2003 00:00
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A new "Department of Truth" headed by a top-ranking civil servant is to be set up in Whitehall after the departure of Tony Blair's leading spin-doctor, Alastair Campbell.

The decision to appoint a new Permanent Secretary in charge of the entire government communications network will be part of an effort to end damaging publicity about the role of politically appointed "spin-doctors".

But one rumour causing grim amusement in Whitehall is that the brain behind the strategy is Peter Mandelson, the former Labour Party communications director who is credited with being the first of the new wave of spin-doctors when he worked for the party in the 1980s.

Downing Street will announce details this week of an internal shake-up following Mr Campbell's announcement that he is leaving his post as director ofcommunications and strategy in a few weeks.

The Cabinet Office is also expected soon to announce the outcome of a "radical" review of government communications by an outside team led by Bob Phillis, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group. A leading member of the review team was David Hill, who is to take Mr Campbell's place as the Prime Minister's chief spin-doctor.

Mr Mandelson said yesterday: "The Phillis review has nothing to do with me.

"I don't want to talk to you any more. I'd like to have my Saturday back."

But a government insider said: "The key thing people have missed is that Peter Mandelson is the brains behind this whole thing. He is the one advising Tony Blair. The King of Spin is in charge of the death of spin."

Matthew Taylor, a personal friend of Mr Mandelson and head of the Institute for Public Policy Research, an independent think tank, is expected to be brought in as head of a reorganised Downing Street policy unit. Mr Taylor is seen as a "media-friendly" political researcher. Geoff Mulgan, another ally of Mr Mandelson currently working at No 10, is expected to take over part of Mr Campbell's role overseeing government strategy.

Putting a civil servant with the rank of Permanent Secretary in charge of the Government's information service will eliminate the possibility that another political adviser could have the same influence as Mr Campbell. In 1997, Mr Campbell and Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair's chief of staff, were given authority to issue instructions to civil servants - other political aides can only offer advice to politicians.

Mr Hill, like other political advisers, will be supervised by a Permanent Secretary.

The proposed changes have alarmed other ministers, who fear its effect will be to centralise government communications under Mr Blair's personal control, instead of allowing departments to run their own media operations.

Mr Blair has been accused today of being the "real misleader" whose "culture of deceit" has "poisoned the whole of politics", with Mr Campbell acting as his loyal assistant. The leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith, writing in today's Independent on Sunday, says the "excesses of the New Labour project" - personal vendettas, the emasculation of the civil service and the "shameful" treatment of Dr David Kelly - carried out by Mr Campbell, all had Mr Blair's "blessing".

He writes: "While it is true that the British people are now angry at New Labour, they don't just want to change the occupant of Downing Street. They want a different kind of government altogether."

"As Alastair Campbell goes ... it's not the resignation of the servant that matters but the departure of his master. The real Downing Street director of communications must go: Tony Blair himself."

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat chairman, accused Mr Campbell of engineering his departure to obscure more important issues.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "In his own departure Alastair Campbell has managed his greatest spin ever. When we should be talking about where those weapons of mass destruction are, about what is happening in Iraq where our soldiers are being killed and peace is a long way off, he has taken those headlines away and made himself again the major news story."

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