Nick Jones

Political Spin

Before Spin suggests there was once an age of innocence for government information officers, but Keith McDowall’s insider account of his time with the civil service in the 1960s and 1970s reveals that he was already trying out some of the routines that would later become common place under the likes of Bernard Ingham and Alastair Campbell.

In McDowall’s day, the “heavies” – i.e. the serious papers – were the only show in town: the highest accolade for a ministerial press officer was to secure a positive comment piece in the leader column of a national daily such as The Times.

By the 1980s, after switching to become the press supremo at the Confederation of British Industry, McDowall recalled the thrill he felt on finding that one of his stories had merited a favourable page one splash in the Sun, an achievement that still excites the spin doctors of today.

 Blurb for McDowall’s book castigates his successors in Downing Street and Whitehall for succumbing to the concept of spin, a media strategy that he considers “naïve and lacking in integrity”.

Before Spin captures the era when the national press dominated the news agenda, long before the days of the 24-hour news cycle, rolling television news and the constant reaction, and unpredictable impact, of social media.

David Cameron’s choice of the word “purred” said it all: a Bullingdon Club posh boy at his most patronising, boasting about his conversation with the Queen.

The Prime Minister should have needed no reminding of the danger of loose talk in the vicinity of radio and television microphones.

John Major’s condemnation of the “bastards”, like Gordon Brown’s tirade against that “bigoted woman”, at least had the merit of being expressions of anger and frustration.

Cameron’s gaffe was of an entirely different order: here he was sneakily revealing – and almost taking the credit for – the Queen’s pleasure at the result of the Scottish referendum, a breach of the royal confidentiality that Prime Ministers were respecting long before he was even born.

Ed Miliband could hardly have done any more to damage his battered reputation for fiscal competence than to have admitted he didn’t mention the economy at his last party conference before the election because the content of his speech was delivered “from memory, and some from the top of my head”.

The gruesome finale to Maria Miller’s seven-day struggle to hang on to her cabinet post as Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport was a text book example of the high-wire political news management that blighted the Blair years.

Her resignation within a few hours of the start of Prime Minister’s questions mirrored that of Peter Mandelson’s second on-off resignation from Tony Blair’s government in January 2001.

He finally stood down from his position as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland less than an hour before the start of questions in the House of Commons, allowing Blair the chance to wipe the slate clean when he was challenged at the despatch box.

Mrs Miller was only too well aware that David Cameron would have had to face a near impossible task trying once again to fend off criticism of her own inept handling of the investigation into her claims for parliamentary expenses.

Her resignation was announced at 7.18am on Wednesday 9 April; she had given Cameron the benefit of almost five hours in which to prepare himself before he had to face the Labour leader Ed Miliband.

All too many political journalists were as complicit as the ex-spin doctor Damian McBride in helping to propagate his smear stories about the ministerial colleagues and opponents of the former Chancellor and Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Anonymous briefings have become a cancer that is eating away at the probity of British political journalism and unless party leaders insist that the “sources” who speak on their behalf are always identified in the news media, then the Westminster lobby will never have either the inclination or will power to clean up its act.

As McBride reveals in his mea culpa – Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin – political journalists were queuing up to be drip-fed exclusive stories which all too often were used to mount personal attacks on rival politicians.

One of the roots of the corrosive culture of un-attributable briefings was the decision of Tony Blair in 1997 to double and then treble the number of politically-appointed ministerial special advisers – or spin doctors – whose job it was to handle contact with the news media.

Profound changes in journalism in the 1990s worked to their advantage.  Because of aggressive competition from radio and television, newspaper reporters and correspondents increasingly switched their focus from policies to personalities; ministerial aides of the Blair-Brown era found the press corps had developed an insatiable appetite for political gossip, news of back-stabbing and the like.

All honour to ex-spin doctor Damian McBride for trying to shield Gordon Brown from any blame for the numerous attempts he made to smear political colleagues and opponents of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister.

But Brown, like Tony Blair before him, cannot shirk responsibility for having encouraged a culture which created a generation of aggressive attack dogs for whom un-attributable briefings became a way of life.

Both Prime Ministers could easily have reined in their aides and advisers from the start if they too had not been so addicted to spin and the manipulation of the news media.

Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin, McBride’s insider account of his days as Brown’s chief spin doctor is another warts-and-all tale of the dark arts of British politics and one of the least attractive aspects of the Blair-Brown legacy.

New Labour’s all-consuming desire to manipulate political news reporting dated back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when Blair and Brown were up and coming members of Labour’s front bench team.

Jockeying for the best possible result in the annual elections to the shadow cabinet was the only game in Westminster for the party’s rising stars and their determination to promote themselves at the expense of their rivals was aided and abetted by profound changes which were taking place in the coverage of politics.

Reading the reviews of the one-man play, The Confessions of Gordon Brown, I had a sudden pang of conscience: Did I perhaps encourage the former Labour Prime Minister to follow a path which in some small way may have played a part in the ultimate defeat of a driven but tragic figure?

Back in the distant days of Neil Kinnock’s leadership – and Gordon Brown’s promotion to the Labour front bench – we often spoke to each other the phone.

As a BBC political correspondent struggling to make his mark, I found the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury an eager pupil when it came to trying to understand – and then exploit – the demands of radio and television news bulletins.

Few politicians have applied themselves with greater diligence to the task of feeding the never-ending appetite of the news media.  During his decade as Chancellor of the Exchequer he effectively re-wrote the rule book when it came to publicising the Budget and I came to regard him as Labour’s “most prolific and longest-serving trader in government secrets”.

But as Kevin Toolis, the Scottish journalist, screenwriter and film-maker explains, Brown never managed to sell hope, the one commodity which mattered most of all, to a southern English electorate.

Toolis has crafted an insightfully-written monologue, performed by the actor Ian Grieve, and it tells how the “prize of power that Gordon Brown had plotted and schemed for all his life eluded him even after he finally seized the crown from his usurper Tony Blair”.

Two swiftly-executed policy retreats seem to have succeeded in elevating David Cameron’s general election strategist Lynton Crosby to a status comparable to that of Peter Mandelson, arch manipulator for Tony Blair, whose dark arts were credited with helping to steer New Labour to victory in 1997.

Coalition government U turns on plain packaging for cigarettes and minimum pricing for alcohol are both said to reflect the hidden hand of the so called “Wizard of Oz” who is reported to have told the Prime Minister that it is time to start “scraping the barnacles off the hull” in order to prepare the Conservative Party for the long haul to the 2015 general election.

Judging by the ruthless way the decks are being cleared in readiness for the 2015 campaign he is doing what Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, says the Australian strategist does best of all: “winning out the stuff” that politicians might think is important but which does not meet the Crosby mantra that “message matters most”.

And, if the robust stances being adopted by Conservative ministers on issues such as illegal immigration and social security fraud are any guide, the ground is already being prepared for a bruising confrontation with Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

But it is the speed with which Crosby has succeeded – at least for the present – in closing down stories about the links between himself, his partner Mark Textor and the tobacco company Philip Morris Ltd  – a connection first revealed by Spinwatch as long ago as 2005 – which is the clearest illustration of his likely effectiveness as “Dave’s Rottweiler”

When previously secretive spin doctors break a self-enforced vow of silence there is usually more than one political agenda at play and that certainly seems to be the case with the unexpected foray by Andy Coulson into the current uncertainties within the Conservative Party.

By firing a well-aimed broadside across the bows of Boris Johnson – accusing the Mayor of London of wanting to see David Cameron “fail miserably” in the 2015 general election – Coulson has more than repaid the respect which the Prime Minister has continued to show for his former Downing Street director of communications.

But why would Coulson, ex- editor of the defunct News of the World – who is due to stand trial in September over conspiracy allegations relating to the hacking of voice mails – choose this moment to come out into the public arena after spending so long in the political shadows.

Since his initial appointment as the Conservative Party’s top spin doctor in May 2007 (within months of his resignation from the News of the World), Coulson has rarely uttered a word in public about his behind-the-scenes role spinning for Cameron both in the run up to the 2010 general election and then during the first seven months of the coalition government.

In my own book Campaign 2010, I made the point that Coulson’s great value to Cameron was that unlike his infamous predecessor in Downing Street, Alastair Campbell, he was not addicted to self publicity; Coulson always kept the lowest possible profile, had no intention of becoming “the story” and did not get caught up in feeding the news media with speculative stories.

Therefore I have to admit I was taken aback by Coulson’s splash in the GQ magazine (July, 2013) in which he reveals his “ten point plan for saving David Cameron and stopping Labour in 2015.”  Coulson’s choice of GQ is itself a deft touch, opting for a platform not known for its political commentary but seeing itself as an influential magazine with an aspiring readership.

Political journalists are sometimes accused of stretching a point when they try to argue that history is repeating itself. But the plight of David Cameron does have uncanny similarities with the fate of John Major almost twenty years ago.

Then as now the politics of the Conservative Party were being driven by the Tory Euro-sceptics’ demand for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

Back in the 1990s, during the long haul to the general election of 1997 – and the Conservatives’ eventual wipe out – a political maverick was taunting the Prime Minister.

John Major’s bête noire was the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith who was funding the Referendum Party and paying for a splurge of posters and newspaper advertisements which promoted withdrawal from a federal Europe and called for Britain to return to a common trading market.

Two decades later the sceptics’ flag bearer is not an overbearing grandee but a larger-than-life Nigel Farrage, the bloke next door, only too happy to share a pint and explain why the United Kingdom should free itself from the clutches of the Brussels bureaucracy.

More importantly, UKIP ­– which back then was in its political infancy – is now a far deadlier threat than Goldsmith’s cheque book.  Having been endowed with political stardust, Farrage has the ability, at least for the moment, to mobilise the floating voter, that Holy Grail for every party strategist.

A failure to avoid an ill-judged photo-opportunity – or an inability to exploit unexpected mishaps – is often a pointer to the chances of eventual success in British politics.

David Miliband’s inept appearance at the 2008 Labour Party conference – walking along holding up a banana in his hand – was instantly captured by photographers and was an image which came back to haunt him.

Indeed the former Labour Foreign Secretary – now to be the new chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, a leading American humanitarian charity – never seemed entirely at home in the cut-and-thrust of the cruel interface between British politics and an unforgiving news media.

Today’s politicians, as demonstrated so colourfully by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, have to always have an eye on how their every move in public is likely to interpreted – or misinterpreted –  by the tabloid press.

David Miliband’s goofy photo-opportunity was a political car crash. It provided the most unforgettable, and much reproduced, image of the 2008 party conference season and came to symbolise his lack of a killer instinct.

When the chips had been down earlier that summer, when Gordon Brown was floundering as Labour Prime Minister, Miliband fluffed his chance to launch a bid for the Labour leadership; he showed he was no Michael Heseltine, more of a Michael Portillo