Opinion: Hoon error adds to damage done by Number 10

The summer of 2003 will be remembered for two things - its record temperatures and the unrelenting heat on the Government caused by a hostile media and an aggrieved public.

Tony Blair's response was to announce an end to spin. He wants his government these days to be seen as caring and compassionate, one people can trust.

Someone should have told his wife, Cherie, whose latest PR initiative has badly misfired. She appears to have gobbled up almost as many column inches as John Leslie in the last ten days, and how ironic that both crises centred on a bed.

No sooner had the wheels on the Blairs' jet to Barbados left the tarmac, than the Number 10 spin machine kicked in with a 'we're just like the rest of you' stunt. Details that the entire First Family flew economy class were a clumsy attempt to dispel their grand image. The artifice is unbelievable - as I know from my time as head of media at Tory Central Office, even the leader of the Opposition is routinely bumped up to at least business class whenever he and his family travel. You have to go out of your way to stay in economy when you're the PM.

In the end, Cherie's bedside make-up tips seemed especially inappropriate as the widow and family of the late Dr David Kelly prepared for his funeral.

And nothing could have prepared them for the blackening of his reputation by Number 10.

Post mortem details revealed that Dr Kelly was suffering from heart disease and provided a reason other than the dodgy dossier for his suicide. Then came the reports of 'growing concerns over Kelly's story'. It was clear by the weekend that the strategy in place was the destruction of Dr Kelly's character.

By Monday, with the assistance of an off-the-record briefing from official spokesman Tom Kelly, the headlines read: 'Number 10 dismisses Kelly as a "Walter Mitty"'. So in place of a respected, high-level arms expert, we had a low-ranking fantasist with a dodgy ticker and every reason other than the Government for killing himself. Was this the same nonentity pictured last month on a senior panel, just next to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw?

It is true you can't libel a dead man, but the New Labour spin machine is proving that, posthumously and without any comeback, you can destroy his reputation. And all this from a government that is supposed to have left spin behind.

Even more amazing is Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon's spectacular own-goal in refusing to change his holiday plans to mark the funeral of Dr Kelly.

He would have lost two days in the sun. Surely that would not have been too great a price to pay?

It is difficult to imagine the Kelly family would even want at the funeral the man responsible for the department they believe bullied Dr Kelly, or a representative of the Government that now appears keen to discredit him. But using his family holiday as the reason for his non-attendance is a PR disaster. It makes Hoon and thereby the Government look heartless.

Number 10 has always got Dr Kelly wrong.

In the public's eye he is not fair game - he was a distinguished, somewhat naive scientist, devoted to serving his country.

And no amount of smear will change people's minds. Blair would be better advised to concentrate on finding evidence of weapons of mass destruction or trying to turn the focus onto Saddam Hussein's atrocities, as President Bush is successfully doing. It is difficult to see how the justification for war came to centre on destroying the reputation of one man.

It is now clear that something has gone terribly wrong with the legendary Downing Street PR machine. Dead men do tell tales, and the one Dr Kelly is telling is an unedifying one.

Charlie Whelan is on holiday.

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