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
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.