Jonathan Haslam, John Major’s press secretary, is not leaving the
Government Information Service because of a row with a junior minister
about the contents of a press notice. If my ex-colleagues went every
time they stopped the likes of Education Minister Stephen Byers trying
to rubbish his predecessors in a Government press notice, Whitehall
would be a game of musical chairs.
Nor is Jean Caines, my former deputy at No 10, leaving the DTI because
of problems with Margaret Beckett and her team. She wants to enjoy her
husband’s retirement. And Mr Haslam, having done the best job in town at
No 10, as he puts it, wants a new career. The fact remains that five
other colleagues have been disposed of and the Government is now faced
with an even bigger communications crisis than I have been forecasting
in this column. The fates of Andy Wood (Northern Ireland), Liz Drummond
(Scottish Office), Steve Reardon (Social Security), Gill Samuels
(Defence) and Jill Rutter (Treasury) are merely a symptom of the mess
into which the Government has spun itself.
The problem stems from ’New’ Labour’s very existence. To secure
election, it had to pretend to be something much of it isn’t - namely, a
passable imitation of the Tories without the sleaze. That required a
great deal of cosmetic. Spindoctoring triumphed. Tony Blair went to No
10 with, as he admits, a limited programme as well as a philosophical
void. Just what does Labour stand for? Hence its 60-odd policy reviews,
if you believe the Liberal Democrats.
Spindoctoring became even more important. It was now necessary to put a
shine on, by my standards, a politically bankrupt administration. Hence
Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair’s press secretary, running the Government
like a news desk. There are, he says, three parts to a story - the run
up to it, the story itself and follow up. And the greatest of these is
the run up. To create an impression of activity, every measure has been
repeatedly trailed in a media which has so far mislaid its formerly
fiercely rigorous approach to Government.
This worked until events intervened. We then had presentational shambles
in the form of Monserrat, Cabinet pay rises, the exploitation of
Princess Diana’s death, the Queen’s tour of India and, within five
months of taking office, an incredible line of Ministers being canvassed
for the chop - Frank Dobson, Chris Smith, David Clark, Gavin Strang and
Clare Short, and now a single-Euro currency row. Worse still Treasury
spindoctor Charlie Whelan has revelled on TV in manipulating and
Spindoctors have become the issue. That is the measure of Labour’s
presentational crisis. They’re spinning out of control.