Charles Lewington served John Major in the role, but he insists he has moved on since those heady days in the Westminster village.
‘[PRWeek columnist] Charlie Whelan might like to consider himself as a spin doctor, but I think I’ve grown up a bit,’ he says with a wry smile.
These days, Lewington is focused on his agency, which has also grown up a bit over the last few years – and recently changed its name from Media Strategy to Hanover. He says the rebranding reflects the fact that it has grown from a fledgling media relations outfit to a 28-strong consultancy, bringing in close to £3m a year fees and delivering a range of media relations, corporate comms and public affairs.
Now Lewington has serious plans for further growth, saying he wants to be a ‘top 30’ consultancy with a fee income of at least £8m. He delivers this ambitious vision in measured tones, and it is easy to imagine that he has always been something of a high flyer. So it is somewhat surprising to learn that he worked his way up from the humble local press ‘covering dog shows, wedding reports and shoplifting cases at the local magistrate’s court’.
He became a lobby correspondent in 1988, just as the Thatcher years were drawing to a close.
‘It was an exciting time,’ he recalls. ‘Reporting from the House of Commons when Sir Geoffrey Howe made his famous speech which triggered the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, it was just the most amazing history. You get a big adrenalin buzz and there was fantastic camaraderie down there. So I loved all that, but I wouldn’t say there was a hugely grown-up element to the job.’
By the time Lewington had moved to the other side of the fence, working as press secretary to John Major, New Labour was in the ascendancy and spin was the buzzword. ‘It was all the vogue at the time to call people like Alastair [Campbell] and myself spin doctors. Little did I know that, in a short space of time, spin doctors would acquire the same reputation as estate agents.’
However, it is hard to imagine the mild-mannered Lewington adopting the aggressive tactics often associated with Campbell. ‘I had my moments,’ he says, but adds that he wasn’t predisposed to yelling down the phone at off-message hacks. ‘It’s partly because of my personality. But at the time the Conservative government was in such a weak position that too much shouting didn’t work. If you’re dealing with a hostile media, you have to use more deft and silken persuasive powers.’
One former lobby correspondent who dealt with both Campbell and Lewington in the 1990s backs this up. ‘Alastair was more in your face and Charles was smoother,’ he says. ‘He had great calm and charm.’
Now, Lewington is putting those persuasive powers – and a bulging contacts book – to use at Hanover. Gazprom head of PR Philip Dewhurst says Lewington is ‘one of the few consultants to combine an in-depth knowledge of the media and the political world at the highest levels’.
Observers also say that Lewington’s achievements at Hanover are especially impressive given the tragedy that beset the agency in late 2005, when director Gregor MacKay died aged 36, after fighting a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. ‘I lost a good friend,’ says Lewington.
He retains some of the trappings of his political lifestyle, with his alarm bleeping at six in the morning and Radio 4 following shortly afterwards. ‘I’m a Today programme obsessive,’ he reveals. But these days he also tries to find time to walk his eight-year-old daughter to the bus stop before he sets off for work.
So which is the toughest job – spin doctor or agency boss? Lewington appears strongly inclined towards the first, recalling that when he worked for Major ‘the hours were long, the issues massively complex and the egos and the campaign itself bloody tough’.
But then he rephrases the question: ‘If you asked me which has been the most intellectually satisfying, it would be building a business and bringing along a lot of superb clients with me.’
CV - Charles Lewington
Media Strategy rebrands to Hanover
Founded Media Strategy
Press Secretary, Prime Minister John Major
Executive editor, Sunday Express
Political editor, Sunday Express
Political correspondent, Daily Express
News editor, Western Daily Press