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Special report: politics and the media  |  Whitehall

Blair's new spinner 'risks Whitehall war'

David Hencke and Sarah Hall
Friday March 26, 2004
The Guardian

Tony Blair's new chief of publicity was told by the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission yesterday that he had taken a flawed job which could prove cumbersome and ineffectual and end up unleashing a permanent turf war between himself, Downing Street and the rest of Whitehall.

The extraordinary attack on the new post which will be occupied by Howell James was made by John Major's former press secretary Sir Christopher Meyer, to astonished MPs on the Commons public administration committee yesterday.

Sir Christopher, now chairman of the PCP, attacked many of the findings of the review of government communications chaired by Bob Phillis, chief executive of Guardian Media Group.

His evidence followed an equally extraordinary attack by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, on Tony Blair's former press secretary Alastair Campbell, whom he accused of being on an "unhinged blitzkreig" as he toured the country promoting his views.

Mr Dacre accused Mr Campbell of poisoning the atmosphere between the press and politicians.

The appointment of Mr James, aged 50, John Major's political secretary during the 1997 election campaign and a close friend of Peter Mandelson, caused a furore in Westminster. Members of the committee insisted that an independent civil service procedure had been followed. Mr Howell had been head hunted to apply for the job.

The Conservatives said: "This was a very strange appointment. It was a strange way to try and end the culture of spin in Downing Street by appointing a good friend of Peter Mandelson to such a sensitive position, and it is strange Labour should actually want the service of a man who organised the 1997 general election campaign for John Major."

The Liberal Democrats said: "Spin doctoring rules the roost in Blair's Britain."

They criticised two further announcements yesterday: that the government spokesman Tom Kelly, who notoriously described David Kelly as a "Walter Mitty character", will become the prime minister's only official spokesman, while his colleague Godric Smith becomes head of strategic communications at Downing Street. Darren Murphy, a special adviser, becomes a press officer.

"In just one day Tony Blair has invented a new permanent secretary to oversee government communications, hired yet another political special adviser in an already bloated Number 10 team - and the very press officer forced to apologise for calling Dr David Kelly a Walter Mitty character after his suicide is now the prime minister's only official spokesman," Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrats' chairman, said.

The prime minister's official spokesman defended the appointment: "He [Mr James] is somebody who is a very talented communicator who will bring considerably energy and focus to this important job."

Sir Christopher, who made it clear that he did not object to the procedure adopted for Mr James's appointment, attacked the whole premise of the Phillis review.

He did not accept that there was a crisis or three-way lack of trust between the public, press and politicians. He said there was a natural "healthy scepticism" between all three groups which had gone through "a bad patch".

He and Paul Dacre backed the existing lobby system and did not want on-the-record White House-style briefings in front of TV cameras.

Sir Christopher said: "On the record briefings, either by ministers or civil servants, are imperfect vehicles for communicating with the public.