OPINION: Civil service PROs should be overtly political

It was obvious even to the people outside Westminster that Jo Moore would eventually be sacked. The only surprise was that it took so long.

Every day she stayed after her e-mail blunder on 11 September, the worse things got and even she would probably admit privately that it would have been better for all concerned if she had done the honorable thing in the first place. A number of New Labour friends of mine - yes, I still have some - were very upset with me for saying Moore should be sacked way back in September - but they now admit she should have been.

The Tories have, of course, loved every minute of Labour's self-inflicted difficulties over spin and it has allowed them to keep going with their favourite catchphrase that 'Labour are all spin and no substance'.

This certainly rings true and they have cleverly turned the argument to attack the notion of political appointees, or 'special advisers' as they are known. The public is naturally suspicious of 'political' placemen and women and the Tories know it - but at least New Labour have been open about it. No one could be in any doubt that Alastair Campbell is a Labour man and would lose his job if Labour lost.

The Tories were a little subtler in appointing their people. Maggie Thatcher used to talk about civil servants being 'one of us'. The best example being her own press secretary, Bernard Ingham, who conveniently for her was once associated with old Labour. Because Ingham was a civil servant, he could claim 'political neutrality', but that did not stop him doing Thatcher's dirty work.

In days gone by, when the press were not allowed to say who the prime minister's press secretary was, Ingham used the arcane lobby rules to 'kill' Cabinet members, famously calling John Biffen 'semi-detached.' Just because Ingham didn't go to Tory party conferences didn't mean he wasn't doing a job for the Tories.

It has been reported that the civil servant press officers were delighted to see the back of Jo Moore, but in my experience they actually like having people like her to do their dirty work for them.

In any case, the idea that no civil servant press officer has ever practised the black art of spinning is ludicrous. Treasury number two Gus O'Donnell, who used to be John Major's press secretary, will openly admit to being 'political' when doing his job.

In the Treasury I was proud of the team of press officers working with me. And they even taught me a few tricks. In the corner of the press office was a huge cardboard cut-out cheque for £8bn made out to 'The Railways'.

This was left over from the day the Treasury spun the story about Tory investment in the railways just before the 1997 election. I think it was deliberately left there so the civil servants could re-use it to illustrate the new government's railway promises when Labour came to power.

The problem at the moment is that we can't have a mature debate about the issue of political advisers. It all gets caught up with 'spin'. Why on earth a political party can't bring in its people to run things after an election is won I don't know. It seems to work well enough in America.

If the Republicans win, they appoint Republicans. If Labour win, why on earth can't they just bring in Labour people? The truth is that many in the civil service simply aren't up to the job - but no-one wants to admit it.

Labour didn't get rid of all the chief press officers because of their politics, but because they were useless.

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