Whether you like him or loathe him, Tony Blair is a consummate communicator and for the Labour Party’s spin doctors he was always a joy to work with. Once the line was agreed, the Prime Minister rarely if ever deviated from the message which he had been asked to deliver.
And again, while his speaking style might not suit all tastes, he is eloquent, he can be passionate, switching easily from anger to charm, and he can deftly bridge an awkward moment with a self-deprecating joke.
On becoming an MP in 1983, Blair’s all-too-evident political ambition marked him out at Westminster and not surprisingly his potential appeal to the electorate of middle England, first noticed by Peter Mandelson, was then ruthlessly exploited by Alastair Campbell.
But no politician can live by spin alone. Political survival requires solid foundations and sustainable policies and the loss of respect and trust which tends to afflict most political leaders, started to accelerate in Blair’s case from 2001 after he signed up unquestioningly to American foreign policy in the wake of the 9/11 attack.
Allowing himself to be portrayed as George Bush’s poodle was bad enough; the falsehoods in the government’s dossier on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction gave credence to the fatal charge that the Prime Minister had taken Britain to war on the basis of a lie, a stain on his Premiership which he has found impossible to remove.
Campbell’s Rambo-like onslaught on the BBC during the row over Andrew Gilligan’s claim that it was Downing Street which had "sexed up" the dossier, ended tragically in July 2003 with the suicide of the celebrated weapons inspector Dr David Kelly.
Lord Hutton exonerated Blair and Campbell but the scandalous way in which the government had subjected a public servant to a media feeding frenzy proved to be Campbell’s downfall. His ignominious departure from Downing Street months before the judge had even completed his inquiry, finally pulled down the curtain on the bully-boy tactics of Blair’s spin doctors.
What always impressed me about Blair was his understanding of the media mindset and his ability to exploit the dark arts of media manipulation.
Once Peter Mandelson ditched Gordon Brown and took Blair under his wing, the up-and-coming Labour front bencher became ever more accomplished.
On one occasion, when interviewing Blair in the run-up to the 1992 general election, I became frustrated because whatever question I asked, he would not deviate from the fifteen-second soundbite which he had clearly rehearsed and was determined to deliver. He just smiled when I protested: he knew that the BBC would have no option but to broadcast the reply he had prepared earlier.
Similarly when out and about with the newly-elected Prime Minister, I was struck by the effectiveness of his double act with his accomplished press secretary. During photo-opportunities Blair liked to maintain eye contact with his spin doctor. Campbell usually stood among the camera crews and photographers, monitoring the image which was about to be captured. I often saw Blair look across and wait for the nod before making his next move. No wonder there are so few library pictures of Blair’s gaffes: that was one of the secrets of his success, his back up team knew he could be relied upon to play his part and stick to the script.
Blair can claim a lasting legacy in the revolution which has taken place in the way political parties and governments have to communicate in today’s hectic 24/7 media environment. I am convinced that it was the Labour Party’s inventiveness in manipulating the media during the long haul to the 1997 general election which turned the certainty of Blair’s victory into an historic landslide.
Pinning the word "sleaze" so firmly to John Major’s government was a brilliantly-executed piece of political strategy which will remain an important case study in the text book for future spin doctors.
Campbell’s first act on becoming Blair’s official spokesman was to re-write the rules for government information officers instructing them to "grab the agenda" by trailing new policies and decisions even before ministers had made their announcements in Parliament.
While there was no doubt that the government’s publicity machine developed a faster response rate and became more effective, there was a downside to the Campbellisation of the flow of information from the state to the public.
Increasingly it was the burgeoning band of Labour’s political advisers who pulled the strings and this has had the effect of politicising the work of hundreds of civil service information officers.
My criticism of the Blair-Campbell media regime was that it took advantage of intense competition within the news media; increasingly information was traded with journalists on an off-the-record basis making it easier for reporters to embellish their stories with questionable quotes from "cabinet insiders", "Whitehall contacts" and many other equally anonymous sources.
Trust in Blair spiralled downwards; parliamentary accountability has been weakened; standards of political journalism have been undermined; and, most worrying of all, has been a growing sense of cynicism among the electorate. My worry is that a change of government will not necessarily make a great deal of difference. David Cameron and a much revived Conservative Party will be as determined as Blair was to spin their way to victory and then hold on to power.
(First published Yorkshire Post 10.5.2007, Spinwatch 10.5.2007)