OPINION: Blair can but try to harness the whirlwind

Returning home at the weekend after a lecture cruise, I felt an acute sense of deja vu. A dozen years ago in the twilight of the Thatcher era, we invariably came back from abroad to another crisis, usually involving some minister or other resigning to spend more time with his family. This time I came back to find Alastair Campbell making himself scarce as the Prime Minister’s spokesman to spend more time on election strategy. Does this signify that night is also falling on the Blair project?

Returning home at the weekend after a lecture cruise, I felt an

acute sense of deja vu. A dozen years ago in the twilight of the

Thatcher era, we invariably came back from abroad to another crisis,

usually involving some minister or other resigning to spend more time

with his family. This time I came back to find Alastair Campbell making

himself scarce as the Prime Minister’s spokesman to spend more time on

election strategy. Does this signify that night is also falling on the

Blair project?



Well, in a sense it is. No Prime Minister is ever as powerful as when he

or she enters No 10 for the first time. After that, it is downhill all

the way as people, personalities, issues and events, dear boy (as Harold

Macmillan put it) combine and sometimes conspire to make life hell.



What is extraordinary is the trajectory and pace of the Blair

Government’s fall from grace. Of course, the more popular a Prime

Minister has been the further he has to fall and therefore the more

likely his plunge will be uncomfortably rapid.



Readers of this column know that the return to something resembling

normal politics - as distinct from the speed of its return - does not

come as a surprise to me. I have been prophesying it for years. I have

also consistently argued that Mr Blair and New Labour were being badly

served by the new-style obsession with spin and that they would reap the

media whirlwind because of the methods employed by their spin doctors -

and notably by Mr Campbell. To the sensitive souls in the present

Government, unaccustomed as they are to criticism, they probably think

that the whirlwind has arrived.



In fact, it is not much more than a stiff breeze because, as some

commentators have pointed out, the media are heavily compromised by

Labour’s spin; they have knowingly allowed themselves to be spun.



Mr Campbell’s retreat into a monastic existence - if that is what it

turns out to be - is intended to prevent a whirlwind developing. His

substitution by a civil service spokesman, Godric Smith, is intended to

take the heat out of the friction which Mr Campbell causes by his daily

contemptuous news-making presence on the media front line and his

obsession with manipulation.



But that of itself will not stop a real twister raging through the

Government if Mr Campbell is still seen to be pulling the strings.



What matters is whether departments stop selectively leaking every

announcement before Parliament is told; stop recycling every

announcement as if it were pristinely new; stop creative accounting over

spending; stop inventing news to try to divert attention away from

embarrassment such as the WI’s handbagging; and stop treating media

relations as a no-holds-barred form of all-in wrestling. The

Government’s problem is that it is not trusted.



The moral is: stop spinning.



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