OPINION: Lord Irvine's pay rise reveals a lack of PR nous

On Sunday mornings I take part in a radio quiz where we have to predict the next week's news events. Had anyone suggested that the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, would be awarded a £22,000-a-week pay increase, I would have suggested that they return to the puzzle factory.

The reason I would have been so adamant that no government with even half an eye on the media would ever contemplate such an act of folly was that the public servants' pay review body was reporting last week. With teachers and soldiers being asked to settle for little above inflation, no-one in their right mind would give Tony Blair's mate a whopping 12.6 per cent, would they?

As PR blunders go this must be one of the biggest since Lord Irvine spent £500,000 on his new wallpaper. Gordon Brown, I'm told, was spitting blood.

There was initially a strong 'no comment' from his office, though this was most probably because the Chancellor's real comments were unprintable.

One of the main reasons that the Government sabotaged any attempts at a settlement with the firefighters was because the Treasury wanted to get the latest pay reviews out of the way. Prescott backed down from his aggressive stance with the FBU last week in the knowledge that other public sector workers were going to be offered even less than the firefighters.

Andy Gilchrist, on hearing of the Lord Chancellor's pay hike, must have thought Christmas had come early. Even the most incompetent PR officer would have been able to work out a response: '£22,000 is more than a firefighter gets in a year'.

With all it's strategic comms units and media strategy committees you would have thought that someone in government would have seen the folly of giving the Lord Chancellor a huge bung. Surly they can't all be engaged in trying to sell us the war?[QQ*] Perhaps they thought that if they could get away for so long with hiding the fact that their dossier on Iraq was plagiarised from a student's essay, then we wouldn't notice a trifling sum being given to Lord Irvine.

Maybe the great communications director, Alastair Campbell, thought that by announcing the pay review on a Friday afternoon when MPs are back home and hacks sleeping off a long lunch he would get away with it. Fat chance.

The best fun was had when Downing Street initially tried to justify Lord Lairg's pay rise. We were told he had to get it because it was a requirement that he is paid more than England's Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf. He was given a huge pay hike because there had been 'slippage' with the top mandarins. I bet that will have gone down well with a squaddy getting paid less in a year than the Lord Chancellor's proposed increase, and now being sent off to war by Irvine's best mate Blair.

The real surprise is that the Treasury did not just block the pay increase and so prevent this PR disaster. Some conspiracy theorists say that they decided to let it go through in the knowledge that it would be so damaging to the Lord Chancellor, whom the Treasury hates. When it was previously revealed that the Lord Chancellor had paid tens of thousands of pounds for a new carpet, Number 11 took up their old carpet in the stateroom and left bare floorboards. It's a permanent reminder to everyone who visits the Chancellor exactly what he thinks of Blair's closest friend in government.

The real truth, of course, is that Brown wasn't told about the increase and as soon as he was demanded that the Lord Chancellor should refuse it. The latter eventually did, of course, but by then the PR damage had been done.

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