OPINION: Things aren't improving for Tory PROs

I wish I had a fiver for every time I have heard a Conservative say 'What we need is an Alastair Campbell'. Admittedly, I've heard less of it since Mr Blair's press secretary, if that is what he remains, withdrew himself from the front line of media relations because he was counter-productive. But the idea, if not the name, lingers on. The Tories have always been prone to blame their presentation. That is why I entitled my memoirs of government service 'Kill the messenger'. Whenever anything went wrong, I expected to be shot, though not by Margaret Thatcher.

I wish I had a fiver for every time I have heard a Conservative say 'What we need is an Alastair Campbell'. Admittedly, I've heard less of it since Mr Blair's press secretary, if that is what he remains, withdrew himself from the front line of media relations because he was counter-productive. But the idea, if not the name, lingers on. The Tories have always been prone to blame their presentation. That is why I entitled my memoirs of government service 'Kill the messenger'. Whenever anything went wrong, I expected to be shot, though not by Margaret Thatcher.

You would have thought New Labour would have cured them of this malaise. Labour spin-doctoring, far from sustaining the Government in office, has destroyed the public's trust in it, if not necessarily its support, which is different.

It might have destroyed support had the Conservatives behaved like Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition over the last two years. Instead they have all too often appeared without political anchor and rudderless in the bargain. They have certainly not supported Captain Hague, who has been virtually the only member of the Shadow Cabinet to register his presence on the bridge. Now, as a second defeat stares them in the face, they make it all the more likely by opportunistic manoeuvrings and downright eccentricity on the part of the leading Portillista.

None of this is due to incompetent media relations, if that is what is meant by presentation. A culpably impressionable, uneven-handed and politically partisan media (when you think of how they treated John Major's far cleaner government) has simply not wanted to know about Conservatives, except to assault them.

Until fairly recently the media has been besotted with Blair. There will, of course, be those who will say this is no excuse. It is up to politicians to make something of themselves. And there is a lot in that. But let's not kid ourselves any of us PROs could have done much better, given the media's 'down' on Tories.

Yet up to a few weeks ago this was Mr Blair's annus horribilis. This gave the Tories their chance. After slashing Labour's lead, they have now blown it - not because of presentational idiocies but through policy and organisational failure, as demonstrated by the conference cannabis gaffe for which Ann Widdecombe is blamed. There seems to be no control over the creation, manufacture and selling of the Tory product, whatever it now is, and still less over the personnel involved. The current Tory Party is a classic illustration of the PR adage: 'You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear'.

It may be that those Tories who still hanker after an Alastair Campbell really want not a press secretary but a gauleiter - an iron hand.

If so, I'm inclined to agree with them. Their presentation would improve rapidly if they got a grip - as no doubt their PROs have told them.



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