OPINION: Govt is now getting even the PR basics wrong

Chancellors may have their budgets once a year for a free PR hit, but prime ministers have something even better to show who's really in charge - Cabinet reshuffles.

Tony Blair, like all prime ministers before him, has the sole power to hire and fire more than 100 ministers, and at the same time can do whatever he likes with the different government departments - even abolish them if he wants. As I know only too well, the PM even has the say on who ministers hire as their own special advisers. Now, you can't get much more power than all that. How is it then, that Blair's latest attempt to reshape his Government so spectacularly backfired?

Of course the Prime Minister was shocked and surprised by the genuine resignation of Alan Milburn, but that does not explain why he seems to have lost the plot. For an event like a reshuffle, the Number 10 PR machine has plenty of time for preparation, because it alone decides the timing.

It can also effectively control the news agenda by leaking plans in advance, and has time to brief key opinion-formers if necessary. It is a fact of life that if someone is kept in the dark about something new, they will oppose it. On this occasion, when there were such radical plans for the law, Blair didn't even bother to tell the head of the Bar Council. The result was inevitable - a public attack on the Prime Minister's proposals.

If you think that the latest Blair reshuffle went down badly in England, then you should see the Scottish papers. Everyone knew there would be changes at the Scottish and Welsh offices because, since devolution, they have had less to do, but Blair even managed to cock this up. Number 10 gave the impression that the posts of Scottish and Welsh Secretary had been abolished - not surprising really, since this is what Blair planned to do. The problem was that Donald Dewar had ensured this was not possible without a new Act of Parliament.

It was because Number 10 found out about this legal hitch at the last minute that the whole reshuffle was delayed. The press did not know about the details until 5.45 in the evening, giving hacks very little time to write their stories and broadcasters little time to think up their soundbites.

The Westminster lobby was very angry and soon got their revenge by savaging the changes. The hacks got plenty of help in writing their attacks on the reshuffle from disgruntled Labour MPs. MP for Glasgow Pollok Ian Davidson best summed up most MPs' thinking by telling the press that it seemed the plans had 'been drawn up on the back of an envelope'.

As if all this wasn't bad enough, he gave the health job to a man who didn't want it and is from a country that has rejected all of Milburn's planned hospital reforms. Poor old John Reid. He was desperate to get back to defence, only this time running the show. My old Communist Party chum joked with me the other day that he loved being at the MoD meeting all the troops, because they all call each other 'comrade'.

It seems that virtually everything the Government has done recently where a simple PR exercise is needed, has bombed. Could this have anything to do with the fact that Alastair Campbell has taken on a wider role as director of strategy and communications for Number 10? Campbell should stop pretending he can do this job and go back to doing the job he does best - spin doctor.

Perhaps the most significant fact of last week - following his triumph over Blair on the Euro - was that Gordon Brown's department remained exactly as it was. If Blair carries on like this, his time may come sooner than we thought.

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