Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Disciples of the New Labour school of spin doctoring must have been purring with delight when the shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper silenced the BBC television presenter Andrew Marr by giving him a master class in not answering the question.

She followed the rule book to the letter: prepare and learn a soundbite and then deploy it relentlessly; when an interviewer finally gives up and beats a retreat, do not smirk.

Indeed the best tactic is to show no reaction whatever and maintain an air of supreme confidence, a manoeuvre which Ms Cooper completed with aplomb when interviewed on the Andrew Marr Show (3.12.2011) and asked about Labour’s continued criticism of the autumn statement from the Chancellor George Osborne.

Marr pressed her three times on how much extra Labour would spend in view of the party criticism of the coalition government for “cutting too far and too fast.”

Ms Cooper’s soundbite was delivered flawlessly: “We would have set out a plan for growth and jobs...We would have much higher growth rather than paying extra for social security.”

After trying – and failing – three times to discover how much extra borrowing a Labour government would be prepared to sanction, Marr threw in the towel. “I think I am not going to get the figures...I am going to move on.”

Marr’s inability to get Ms Cooper to address the point of the question took me back to my days of College Green at Westminster interviewing another Labour front bencher tipped for the leadership.

On being appointed shadow Secretary of State for Employment in November 1989, Tony Blair became an eager pupil of Peter Mandelson, Labour’s director of campaigns and communications.  As I discovered to my cost Blair soon became a master of the New Labour technique of formulating a soundbite and then never deviating from it.

On one fraught occasion when I asked Blair about Labour’s future stance on trade union and employment law he avoided the question entirely and delivered what would become his well-worn mantra about the party’s “commitment to training and the importance of meeting the skills shortage.”  His answer omitted all reference to the Labour’s relationship with the trade unions.

Mandelson, who had hovered just out of shot while the interview was being filmed, smiled at my discomfort.  He had told the BBC that the pre-condition for the interview was that Blair could be asked only one question.

Blair smiled as he heard Mandelson deliver his final put down.  He told me he had ruled in advance there could be no supplementary questions as he was convinced that my report for Breakfast News would be “the same old story of Neil Kinnock being kicked around by the unions.”

Unlike me, Marr had three chances of getting Yvette Cooper to answer his question but the shadow Home Secretary laid on a performance that Mandelson would no doubt have marked with a gold star.

END 3.12.2011