End of the affair
IT IS the end of history; or at least the end of the hand of history, the queen of hearts, and the bog-standard comprehensive.
Alastair Campbell has left Downing Street for good, and with him have gone all the accoutrements of the black arts that helped Labour into power but lately threatened to drag Tony Blair’s government deeper into disrepute at the most critical point since he came to power six years ago.
Campbell is yesterday’s man; Blair is a changed one. The director of communications may have left the building but his parting shot was a monumental, and hugely ironic, last hurrah: the end of spin.
It is a ground-breaking announcement that the government’s critics, including those within its own ranks, have longed to hear, but it met with only a luke-warm reception when Downing Street dropped it on a party still reeling from the sudden loss of one of the emblems of New Labour.
"The spin is that we are getting away from spin," Labour MP Stephen Pound drily observed as Downing Street insiders began, in customary Campbell-esque fashion, quietly adding the details to go under the headline. David Hill, Campbell’s replacement, will play a straighter bat, it is claimed.
"This does represent an extraordinary admission by one of the most successful governments that they have failed to convince the majority of people that they are not driven by presentation."
Pound, an astute observer of New Labour politics, is reliably accurate with his analysis of his leader’s behaviour. Campbell, for years the leading edge of his victorious assault on public opinion, one of Blair’s topmost assets, had become one of his most pressing problems.
The drip-drip of briefing against Labour colleagues, right up to members of the cabinet, the relentless management of a media machine that structured announcements to suit the government’s case, and then re-announced good news whenever favourable coverage was needed, had tarnished Blair’s precious image over a six-year period. If Campbell had to go, then why not push his system out the door with him?
"I can’t deny that spinning has become a big issue for us, a big problem even," one Downing Street insider said last night. "Talking of changing things now doesn’t necessarily mean Alastair was standing in the way of that change, but his going gives us a perfect opportunity to do it. And David will need a ‘big idea’ when he comes in. He is no different to anyone else coming into a responsible position in a big organisation. He’ll want to stamp his own personality on to the job."
Hill is not, however, walking into a job whose duties have been entirely decided by others before he gets his feet under the desk. Scotland on Sunday understands that his reforming agenda, which will revolve around a mission to improve relations with the press and to de-politicise the wider government media operation, was thrashed out in discussions with Blair and Campbell before he finally committed himself to taking the poisoned chalice.
Hill, while equally committed to the cause of getting Labour’s message across, is far less combative and obsessive than Campbell proved to be over almost a decade at Blair’s side - often to the Prime Minister’s cost. In his previous career as a Labour communications chief, he was known for his ability to deal with MPs and journalists on their own ground in the bars and cafeterias of Westminster, rather than remaining a remote figure in the shadows, as Campbell became in his later years.
Similarly, Hill prefers to communicate his message in public, rather than relying on behind-the-scenes briefing to selected journalists.
"I always knew David Hill would never lie to me and that I could trust him," one veteran parliamentary correspondent said last night. "I could never say the same with any confidence about Alastair Campbell."
Although he is, apparently, the antithesis of Campbell and his approach to media relations, Hill is not entirely an outsider when it comes to the Downing Street machine, as his partner, Hilary Coffman, is a senior member of the Prime Minister’s press office. Yet the new media supremo has already shown his distaste for some of the difficulties that spin can cause for a party claiming to be dealing honestly with a sceptical public. Hill’s resignation and departure for the private sector in 1998 are believed to have been provoked by Bernie Ecclestone’s 1m donation to the party, when he was accused of giving a misleading account of events.
In his absence, Campbell accumulated greater powers and only enhanced his reputation as a malign force within the government. After the last election, his job changed from Blair’s official spokesman to Director of Strategy and Communication, with an over-arching control over presentation across the entire government machine, with the powers to order around civil servants in the Prime Minister’s name. His influence was not confined to mere underlings, however. Campbell was fingered for the description of Gordon Brown as "psychologically flawed", and he accelerated Peter Mandelson’s demise from the cabinet a second time, describing him as "unfocused" amid increasing pressure over his links with the Hinduja brothers.
The full extent of Campbell’s powers within Blair’s Camelot was graphically revealed by the evidence released to the Hutton Inquiry, which demonstrated his central role in producing the controversial dossier of evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. David Clark, an aide to Robin Cook when he was Foreign Secretary, has already claimed the startling disclosures suggested Campbell had reached the peak of his powers; it appears Blair now feels the same way.
"When we are in a situation where a press secretary is chairing meetings of the Joint Intelligence Committee, something unique is happening to the British constitution," Clark said. "Campbell’s position has become untenable. He and his methods have clearly become a liability."
The Prime Minister, poking his head out into the brave new world after Campbell, has decreed what appears to be a landmark change in operations.
Hill will announce the details next week, but insiders last night confirmed that his strategy of openness could also include the admission of television cameras into hitherto secret press briefings conducted by Downing Street every day.
Campbell introduced a degree of transparency into the arrangements for giving the collected mass of parliamentary journalists the government’s response to the issues of the day, but the archaic system remained largely closed shop. Opening the daily sessions to cameras would be on the one hand a simple demonstration of a commitment to openness, and also a way of communicating directly with the public over the heads of the press. Hill may be able to calm an excitable and hostile press to some degree, but Labour will never rely upon newspapers alone to transmit its message - particularly when it is struggling to regain the trust of the public.
"Tony has experimented with this before, with his televised monthly press conferences," an aide explained last night. "It is a simple tactic, going straight to people with your position without letting it be filtered through the newspapers and the agendas they are working to."
Hill will not lack encouragement within government if he decides to take an axe to the enormous press and policy operation Campbell - and Blair - allowed to grow up around themselves in their Downing Street nerve-centre. The Number 10 base, which includes 27 policy advisers, costs almost 7m a year - with over 1m spent on the press operation alone.
Ministers are among those who believe the dismantling of Campbell’s empire should begin here. "You can’t say things have changed and leave that bloated powerbase there," one ministerial source complained.
The concerns are shared within Downing Street, where one insider said: "I don’t think a press outfit of this size was ever planned, but it has got to be looked at as part of any restructure. If they are talking about a root-and-branch restructure, then all bets are off as far as everything Alastair left behind is concerned."
The most momentous post-Campbell development planned by Blair’s depleted kitchen cabinet is the determination that no one in future should be accorded the unprecedented level of influence gathered by the departing spin doctor, who was, after all, a civil servant.
Hill himself is believed not to want the responsibility of dictating to senior civil servants including the publicity managers of government departments, a practice which won some of the most damaging headlines for Campbell and Blair alike. The strategic role of co-ordinating the government’s press work across departments will return to non-partisan staff, and slip down the agenda.
The blueprint is, in essence, a return to old-fashioned working that will suit the traditionalist Hill. But the question is whether it will work in practice and, most notably, whether a Prime Minister schooled by Campbell on the high-octane media strategies of the 21st century will be able to adapt.
One man who still aspires to Blair’s office, Michael Portillo, doubts that Blair can kick the spinning habit any more successfully than Campbell. "Blair tried to concentrate on ideological politics in his second term and he succeeded to some degree," he said. "But he still returned to the impulse to spin news. I believe Campbell tried to end the spin cycle, but it was the Prime Minister who could not stop."
Campbell’s departure should make it more likely that Blair can effect such a mould-breaking transformation in the way he approaches the business of government. But, ironically, Campbell is exactly the man Blair needs alongside him to effect such a change. Campbell is the most significant member of Blair’s inner circle to leave, but he is not the first. Anji Hunter, Blair’s long-term friend and former ‘gate-keeper’ has gone to the private sector, his mentor Lord Irvine disposed of, along with Blairite fellow traveller Stephen Byers. Alan Milburn jumped ship of his own accord, and others have taken the same route. Chief-of-staff Jonathan Powell and head of external relations Sally Morgan are the only originals to remain, although Powell is rumoured to be planning an exit.
Gordon Brown, serenely free of any tarnish from the Kelly affair, is looking on from the wings as he prepares for the imminent arrival of his child. As one ally of Blairite defence secretary Geoff Hoon put it last week: "There aren’t many people left who’ll take a bullet for Tony Blair." The Prime Minister looks remarkably short of friends as he contemplates one of the biggest challenges of his spell in Downing Street. His search for a third way in media relations may be overshadowed by a search for new members of his inner circle.
The day before Blair faced the Hutton Inquiry last week, a familiar figure was seen gliding through Number 10. Peter Mandelson is believed to have helped the Prime Minister prepare himself for the hearings, which returned positive coverage from most observers. The real significance of the old Svengali’s appearance was not entirely clear until Friday, when Campbell packed his bags.
"That can only mean trouble," one ministerial source said when told of the return. It is hardly likely to mean the end of spin.
Blairs new faces
THE balance of power in Tony Blair’s Downing Street is passing into new hands as his long-standing allies depart.
DAVID HILL: The replacement for Alastair Campbell. Headed up the Labour Party press office from 1991 until 1998 when he departed for a PR job and a six-figure salary with Bell Pottinger, the company run by former Tory adman Tim Bell.
A blunt-speaking Brummie, Hill studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford’s Brasenose College, and is a passionate Labour loyalist.
He worked for Roy Hattersley during the Callaghan government and then Neil Kinnock through the 80s.
His partner is Hilary Coffman, who works in the Downing Street press office.
PAT McFADDEN: Blair's political secretary. A slimly-built, well-liked Scot with strong links to the Labour movement.
McFadden was Jonathan Powell's deputy before moving to Labour headquarters for the last election and then leaving for fresh fields.
He was recalled last October when Downing Street was in a panic over the rise of union militants and needed someone with good contacts.
McFadden is already a key player because of his expertise and popularity with union leaders, left-wing Members of Parliament and leading activists.
He was a member of John Smith's leadership team and his diplomatic skills were used to mediate between Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown at the height of their feud.
JEREMY HEYWOOD: Likely to replace Jonathan Powell as Blair’s chief of staff. Heywood is said to be Mr Blair's favourite career civil servant and is currently the PM's principal private secretary.
He also presently carries the extra title of head of policy directorate - a reward for turning down offers of promotions.
PETER HYMAN: Mr Blair's main speechwriter. A former Labour Party press officer, BBC producer and Sky News journalist, Hyman is also currently the Policy Directorate's media analyst. He is the author of many of the Prime Minister's speeches, including last year's poorly received "third way philosophy" relaunch at the London School of Economics.
SALLY MORGAN: Blair's former political secretary at No 10, who was given a peerage after the 2001 election, has now taken over from her old rival Anji Hunter as director of government relations.
A rising power within Downing Street circles, she spends her time schmoozing business, the unions, Labour and the devolved administrations, though she carries some blame for the botched reshuffle in June.
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