Opinion: Government comms appointment stinks

The PR points accrued by the Government for getting rid of its chief spin doctor have been lost. The final piece of the post-Alastair Campbell jigsaw, put in place last week, has only made matters worse and, almost inevitably, the new team could not be put together without a large whiff of scandal.

We now have a 'political' director of communications (David Hill) and a new permanent secretary of government communications (Howell James), all as a result of recommendations from the inquiry into government communications chaired by Guardian Media Group chief executive Bob Phillis.

To an outsider, the appointment of John Major's former political secretary to the new top job may have seemed strange, but at least it couldn't be described as cronyism. Could it? Those privy to the secret world of spin were not so easily fooled.

James is a close friend of Peter Mandelson and once advised the Hinduja brothers. When James was working for Major, the political gossip at Millbank centred on a secret pact he'd supposedly made with Mandelson, according to which their respective bosses would make no personal attacks on each other. If that's true, no one bothered to tell Alastair Campbell, who revelled in doing down Major.

What really stinks about the James appointment, apart from his friendship with Mandelson, is that the new permanent secretary was on the committee that recommended setting up the new job in the first place. Is it any wonder that Sir Christopher Meyer, once John Major's press secretary and now head of the Press Complaints Commission, lambasted the appointment?

He also argued that the changes would cause conflict in Whitehall.

I'm not so sure. It's not as if James will do anything to upset Blair - and, as Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull has shown, civil servants can be every bit as compliant as any political appointee. Turnbull, remember, approved of Blair dipping into his blind trust to buy a couple of flats for his son and was also - surprise, surprise - on the panel that selected James.

It's Mandelson who appears to have come out of all this the best, though if you are an Independent reader you are unlikely to know about the Mandy-James link: the paper's political editor conveniently forgot to tell his readers. It amazes me how much influence the twice-disgraced minister still has over some of the lobby hacks, but it's not just in Westminster that he has support. Unbelievably, The Guardian's Polly Toynbee wrote that the James appointment was fine on the basis that the Daily Mail headlined its story 'Mandy's mate gets top job'.

Is that the same Guardian whose parent company's chief executive first came up with the idea for the new Downing Street spin regime?

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