Opinion: Tory spin doctors regain the PR initiative

I always enjoy my annual pilgrimage to Harrogate for the Tory Party spring conference. The North Yorkshire town gets my vote as the best venue for such political gatherings.

This year my visit was slightly spoiled by the nine-hour train journey due, we were told, to 'signal failure'. The GNER trains might be unreliable but at least they have got their PR right. Within minutes of the delay we were all given a form to make a claim and apologising for the inconvenience.

Free food and drinks were also distributed, to those of us not in cattle class at least. Had the Conservative Party also got its PR act together I wondered? The answer is a simple yes.

The day before the conference every newspaper reported on the Tories' 'new' policy on health and education passports. Even the Tory spin doctors admitted to me that this wasn't new at all but hey, who cares? If a story is worth telling once, it's worth telling twice. The 'passport' stuff was exactly what had been briefed last year at Harrogate but got zilch coverage due to the media's obsession with the war.

Michael Howard is on record as saying he wouldn't pre-brief his speeches. Well, he doesn't. He gets his spin doctors to do it for him and very effective they are too. Unlike the disastrous Letwin speech a few weeks ago, all the Sundays dutifully reported the Howard briefing exactly as it was explained to them. The Tory head of press has taken on board my motto that if you don't feed them, they will feed on you - sensible chap.

Not according to plan though was Lord Saatchi, who got carried away at a fringe meeting and in answer to a question about Gordon Brown blurted out that they would be using the slogan 'Vote Blair, Get Brown' in the election campaign. Unfortunately for the spin doctors, one diligent hack was still in the room and this slightly more 'sexy' story got bigger licks in the papers than the speech briefing. I am willing to bet my mortgage that you never hear this stupid slogan again.

The Tory chairman obviously had nothing to do with Howard's speech though, because it was pretty good. Now I know I slagged off the shadow chancellor for failing to come up with one decent sound bite but the Tory leader is going the other way. 'To let the sunshine of choice break through the clouds of state control' is a little too crass. On the plus side, 5 Live carried the whole speech, something that usually only happens to prime ministers. There was also a demo outside by the union Amicus. The Tories must matter again.

A good weekend then for the Conservative Party and on my Whelan Champagneometer, bottle sales were well up on last year, indicating a very happy bunch of bunnies.

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