Together with Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and David Hill,
Charlie Whelan belongs to the spin quartet that propelled Labour to
power in May. But, although Mandelson and Campbell have both been
well-known figures for some time, Whelan has only recently started to
gain a media profile of his own.
In his capacity as press adviser to Gordon Brown he is a key member of
the Treasury team. Quite how important and central his role is became
apparent in the two-part Network First fly-on-the-wall documentary on
Brown and his advisers which concluded on ITV on Tuesday last week. The
documentary showed Whelan at his outspoken, expansive best. Even
capturing him saying to camera - with a touch of bravado worthy of Ian
Richardson in House of Cards: ’You have to be economical with the truth
His arrival at the Treasury was soon followed by the departure of its
press office head Jill Rutter. Media matters, it became clear from day
one, were to be handled the Whelan way.
’He’s a terrifically important player,’ says Guardian financial editor
Alex Brummer. ’He has more control of information coming out of the
Treasury than any of his predecessors.
Whelan is single-minded and fiercely loyal to Brown. Seldom one to shirk
confrontation, Whelan has made his share of enemies within the Labour
Party. But at the same time he has also won a great deal of respect for
his media skills. He himself admits to an ’obsession’ with the media, a
factor that helps drive him through the long and intense days he puts in
working for Brown.
’He’s professional to his fingertips, 16 hours a day, seven days a
week,’ says one journalist who has known Whelan for a decade. ’He always
thinks ahead and doesn’t miss an opportunity.
’He just doesn’t fear anyone and can be pretty ferocious. If he thinks
somebody has crossed him or treated Gordon unfairly he’ll cross the
street to hit them. But he can be incredibly charming - and doesn’t hold
grudges ... for more than a couple of years!’
After studying politics at City of London Polytechnic and a brief stint
in the City, Whelan began his career proper at the Amalgamated
Engineering and Electrical Union where he was taken under the wing of
Jimmy Airlie, a hero of the 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders dispute. He
learnt the art of tough negotiation in disputes with multinational
corporations such as Ford, before switching to a press capacity where he
saw to it that Bill Jordan and Gavin Laird were among the most high
profile union leaders in the country.
His talents caught the eye of Mandelson who tipped him for the job with
Brown. Today there is said to be some ’creative tension’ in his
relationship with Mandelson, although he is understood to get on well
Whelan is quick to deny the suggestion that it was he who engineered the
’chance’ discovery by photographers of the Chancellor having dinner with
his fiancee Sarah Macaulay. ’I don’t engineer things and I’d never do
anything like that,’ says Whelan innocently. But rarely has a denial
sounded to my ears so much like a tongue-in-cheek affirmation. Only Tim
Bell does this sort of thing better.
Whelan has been described as a ’charmer with a knife’, a man unafraid to
rough it up if his silver tongue lets him down. But he is also very good
on detail. Brown values his input and his thoroughness - whether that be
checking with Clare Short to make sure she would not be offended by a
joke the Chancellor was planning to make at her expense, or arranging
for the podium at Millbank to be brought to the Treasury to add gravitas
to Brown’s announcement on the future of the Bank of England.
Aside from his passion for politics Whelan is an avid Tottenham Hotspur
fan. To his chagrin, bitter rivals Arsenal are riding high in the
Premiership while his team languishes in its lower reaches and is the
butt of criticism.
Spurs manager Gerry Francis may have the glamorous David Ginola and Les
Ferdinand to call upon but right now he probably wishes he had Charlie
Whelan in his team too.
Foreign exchange dealer
Researcher and assistant to Jimmy Airlie, Amalgamated Engineering and
Press secretary to Gordon Brown