CAMPAIGNS: Judge and Jury; Where were the spin doctors when Major needed them?

Major’s success at Blackpool was largely of his own making, says Tim Sutton, director of Charles Barker

Major’s success at Blackpool was largely of his own making, says Tim

Sutton, director of Charles Barker

I have always enjoyed the story of the inauspicious arrival on these

shores of William the Conqueror. The poor chap had just landed and he

falls flat on his face on the beach. Probably not the symbol of strong,

confident leadership his Normans were looking for. But Will didn’t

become ‘the Conqueror’ for nothing. Showing his men the sand in his

hand, he said: ‘Look, I already hold England in my hand’.

It was a soundbite Neil Kinnock might have remembered when, some years

ago, he also, famously, fell over on the beach during a Labour Party

conference week. But talk of triumph snatched from disaster leads me not

to the People’s Party, but to the Conservatives’ group therapy session

in Blackpool.

Like William, the conference started with an embarrassing slip. Losing a

defecting former minister on the eve of battle looked careless to say

the least. Once again the knives were out for the Prime Minister. But we

needn’t have worried, our John has seen off more stainless steel than


By the end of the week, he was once again Major the Magnificent, a man

of vision. Surely, this was a triumph for the spin doctors at Central

Office? I wonder.

For me, the conference recalled the words of Benjamin Disraeli, who once

colourfully described the then Government front bench as ‘a range of

extinct volcanoes’. (Apt then that the PM’s challenger in the summer was

believed to have come from Planet Vulcan).

What is it precisely that PR is supposed to have achieved during this

momentous Conference? After all, by the end of this vortex of spin, we

knew exactly what we knew at the beginning: that John Major is a dogged

politician, not to be underestimated; that Michael Portillo, not

Charlton Heston, should have played El Cid; and that, according to polls

since, the electorate still wants to give up the Conservatives as badly

as some people want to give up smoking. We just don’t know yet if they

can, or they will.

PR people should reject the falsely flattering notion that style can be

divorced from substance. ‘We’re not getting our messages across well

enough’ might just mean that the messages are wrong. In short, effective

spin needs the right ball and the right pitch.

The chances appear slim. But if John Major can remember that, he might

still like William the Conqueror, get one in the eye of his opponent.

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