Opinion: Govt comms staff now feel nervous

As Labour members tremble in anticipation of the looming leadership campaign, parts of Whitehall tremble with fear. A change of leader means changes of ministers - and that's a risky time for Whitehall's communication directors.

I vividly remember my first experience of a new government. The 1979 election campaign was dominated by images of a nation in crisis. The leader of the Opposition was fêted by a press desperate for change. The country cheered in the new team, which lost little time exploring its suspicions of officials who seemed too close to the previous regime. 

The PM installed a blunt and very capable former journalist - Bernard Ingham - as No 10's press secretary. 

And a year or so later, more than a dozen comms directors had moved on, or out. That was Mrs Thatcher's government. Eighteen years later, Tony Blair's outfit aped the precedent.

We should expect no return to some golden age of an inherently trusted and untouchable civil service, whoever succeeds Blair. For a start, such a service never existed: ministers have always been allowed to select or remove their closest officials on the grounds of chemistry.                                       

So, Whitehall has reason to worry: if the Brownites take over, there will be some quick wholesale changes to establish the line-up for the next election.

Remember the old parliamentary truth that your opponents are on the Opposition benches, but your enemies are behind you. It's hardly surprising that one of the first questions asked by an incoming Cabinet minister is ‘can I trust the communication director?'. 

The loudest internal critics of the Phillis review - and the need for a permanent secretary for government comms - were the Treasury, led by Brown and Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell.

Good luck, chaps.

Mike Granatt is a partner at Luther Pendragon and former director-general of the Government Information and Communication Service

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