OPINION: Blair putting too much faith in the power of spin

I bet you couldn't have wiped the smile off Alastair Campbell's face as he flicked through the newspapers last week, which were stuffed full of great pictures of his war hero Tony Blair in Iraq.

As PR stunts go, the Prime Minister's photo call with troops was bog standard stuff, but this prime minister does seem to be able to pull them off so much better than any of his predecessors. John Major would have looked very silly in a white shirt and casual trousers, but Blair managed to look quite natural. The icing on the cake for the Number 10 press team was the picture of a young Iraqi schoolgirl kissing our Tony - have you noticed Blair only ever visits schools and hospitals?

For many of us though, the whole charade was just too well managed and, as usual, back home things were not going Blair's way. The whole Europe debate has got out of control, but it's the war that has really given the PM most difficulties.

Failure to win the PR battle prior to the outbreak of war and the sending in of troops has come back to haunt the PM. The Downing Street machine never really convinced us of the case for war, but once 'our boys' were engaged in conflict the public inevitably supported them. There is little doubt Blair had decided he was going to war come what may, yet he was rattled not just by the public's hostility to war, but also his own MPs'.

The Prime Minister and his closest allies were desperate, and desperate people take desperate measures. Spin inevitably took over from the facts, and as long as Campbell remains a key player inside Number 10 that will always be the case. Put simply, no one believes anything that involves spin doctors - or strategic communicators, as Campbell likes to call himself these days.

Early on in the Labour Government I met Blair for a private chat in his study. The newly elected Prime Minster wanted to sack me, but the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, wanted me to stay. Blair told me he understood Brown's loyalty to me, and that if anyone had suggested his spin doctor Campbell should be sacked, he would do anything to keep him.

That's Blair's big problem - he simply doesn't believe he could do without his spinner. This is a huge error of judgement. Of course he can - just as Brown could do without me. Campbell is one of the best spin doctors in the business, which is why he knows it's time to get out; the trouble is he hasn't managed to convince Blair of that yet.

Campbell was part of the team that tried to convince us, prior to the war, that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. The failure to provide any real evidence of this post-war may not be enough to topple Blair, but it has given Robin Cook and Clare Short the chance to get their own back on the Prime Minister.

A week ago no one took Short seriously, but now many MPs feel - just like her - that they were duped into supporting the war. Even more serious for Blair has been the way that virtually every newspaper is now on the offensive over the weapons issue. The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph - who obviously have another agenda - have joined in the attack, leaving only The Sun supporting the Prime Minister. And who would want that paper as their only friend?

On Monday, Brown makes his big euro statement. This will undoubtedly be pro-euro, but the question is, will the Chancellor do enough to put off a referendum and thus gain praise from a largely sceptical press?

My guess is that he will, and then the question, yet again, will be about who replaces Tony Blair.

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