OPINION: Howard's long knives stabbed the wrong man

Most Tories were in a triumphant mood after Michael Howard's first Prime Minister's Questions last week. I say most, because there were some very unhappy ones too. They were the workers in Conservative Central Office from the communications department.

The reason for their sadness was the sacking of director of communications Paul Bavistock, director of media Nick Wood and head of broadcasting Nick Longworth. The papers may dismiss this as just a 'purging of IDS spin doctors', but it was probably much more significant for the future of the Tory Party than Howard's new Shadow Cabinet, which, of course, isn't new at all.

Michael Howard has a much tougher job in 'selling' himself than he thinks.

Conservative MPs may have loved seeing Blair get a run for his money during PMQs, but none of this pantomime playing impresses the voters much. Silly stories about Blair's political history certainly don't match up to the Tory leader's past misdemeanours. The Blair stuff actually came from my friend Paul Routledge's new book, Bumper Book of British Lefties, not two bright Tory MPs, as some Conservatives spin doctors claimed. This particular spin was designed to show that Howard could do without people like Paul Bavistock.

The Tories' director of communications wasn't around at Central Office for long but, given the material he had to work with, did a remarkable job. His idea of 'non spin' may even have worked for IDS, but now we will never know.

By far the biggest loss to the Tory cause is Wood, and I'm not alone in thinking that Howard was barmy to sack him. The virtually unanimous view in 'The Burma Road', more commonly known as the Westminster press gallery, was that their director of media will be irreplaceable.

In Government it is easy to set the agenda, but a political party in opposition has to work much harder to do so. You need someone who will spend day and night with the political journalists, not just to feed them with stories, but to find out what they are thinking and writing. That person must also have gained the respect of the hacks - Wood had that respect.

Like David Hill for Labour, Wood is trusted by the political correspondents, and that sort of trust is rare indeed, especially in a spin doctor. It also takes many years to build up. Wood understood better than most what the hacks wanted - stories - and without him things would have been ten times worse for the opposition.

It is not clear why Wood was sacked. Howard had obviously conveniently forgotten that it was Wood who, as political editor of the Daily Express, persuaded the paper to back Howard for leader in 1997. You would have thought Howard would stick with the friends who supported him - even in the bad times.

The new Tory boss probably thought a clearout of the PR department would show how much things had changed under his leadership. The problem is, he brought back Maurice Saatchi to run Central Office. This is a PR disaster.

Saatchi will be forever linked with Margaret Thatcher. As for running things, he even got thrown off the board of his own company.

Backstabbing and infighting have not been rife in the Tory press department, but in Parliament. Among Central Office spin doctors there has always been loyalty to the leader and a show of professionalism that New Labour can no longer match.

Wood will no doubt be eagerly snapped up by a top PR agency - and their gain will be the Tories' loss.

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