Opinion: Leader - James should tackle Downing Street spin

It was reported last week that the cost of running the Downing Street PR operation has more than doubled in the years since Tony Blair took office, from a spend of roughly £600,000 in 1997 to nearly £1.4m last year.

One can see why excitable hacks, never slow to write a 'waste of money on spin doctors' story, jump to the conclusions they do - in part, that is their job; in part, it is their inclination.

But there is a logical flaw in this shock-horror reaction that needs to be exposed. To assume on the basis of a hike in PR spend that the current figure is the flawed one requires the factoring in of a value judgement rather than just an appreciation of the facts. It could just as easily be the case that the amount they were spending back then was too little, than that the amount they spend now is too much.

It is certainly difficult to sustain the case that Conservative Prime Minister John Major emerged with his reputation intact despite the frugality of his communications team.

On the contrary, perhaps, just as the amount spent in 1997 was reflected in Major's destroyed image and electoral collapse, so Blair's extravagance is paying dividends in a determinedly high poll rating after a most troublesome last 12 months.

The important question, however, is whether keeping Blair in power is a legitimate use of public funds, and the answer is: of course not. So it is not the amount Downing Street spends that is troubling, but what exactly is achieved by spending it.

This is the issue that needs to be tackled early on by Howell James, the new permanent secretary for government communications who, it was confirmed late last week, will take up his Whitehall-wide co-ordination role in the summer.

James's background as a civil servant, much more than his well-documented friendship with Blair confidant Peter Mandelson, will need to make its presence felt.

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