In his 1996 book The Blair Revolution, Peter Mandelson, Minister
without Portfolio (or for Meddling, depending on your point of view),
emphasises the need for New Labour to sustain its ideas and vision in
office. This, he says, points to ’the need for ministers to use the
Government’s information service as effectively and professionally as
Tory ministers try to do’.
So, how are they doing now that we have had virtually 100 days of Blair
Government? The answer is to be found partly in Madam Speaker Betty
Boothroyd’s complaint about leaks. What has upset her, as the guardian
of Commons’ privilege, is the persistence with which this Government
makes announcements long before Parliament is informed. One of the
latest examples was the leaking of David Clementi’s appointment as
deputy governor of the Bank of England before he had had the opportunity
to consult his employers, Kleinwort Benson.
I cannot pretend that Tory governments never trailed policy
announcements before informing Parliament. This occurred all too often -
and all too often counter-productively because, while it might help a
department to prepare Conservative opinion, it gave the Opposition more
time to organise its attack. I am by no means convinced of the alleged
benefits of the inspired leak.
But there is a practical problem. It stems from ministers’ perceived
need to prepare public opinion, the demands of Parliamentary privilege,
which require, if the Speaker chooses to enforce it, the Commons to be
told first and Parliament’s meeting more than two hours after evening
paper deadlines. To protect themselves and the official machine,
ministers have increasingly used political or special advisers to do the
And this, in turn, has led journalists to turn to these sources for
briefing and treat the Government Information Service (GIS) merely as
emergency back-up or fact-checkers.
There is some early evidence from journalists that some ministers are
not using the GIS as effectively and professionally as Mr Mandelson
imagined the Tories employed it. It is being by-passed, undermined or
starved of essential background for guiding reporters who want ’depth’.
Political advisers have always been a problem for press secretaries.
They provide another focus and an alternative (wholly prejudiced) voice,
less confined by the restraints of the Civil Service. But a wise
minister will always look after his official machine. This is because it
is the official source and is always around, not least when political
apparatchiks are cultivating their political futures or have gone to
Unless I am mistaken, a communications crisis is in the making. Mr
Mandelson, as a control freak, should take heed. Government
communications cannot live by special advisers alone.