Spin doctor's tough task for the Tories

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 December, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 December, 1995, 12:00am

IT may sound like quackery, but British political parties increasingly believe it is spin doctors who can provide the prescription for new success.

The Conservative Party has just appointed a 36-year-old political journalist as its new champion in the battle of the sound bites. The suave and urbane Charles Lewington, assistant editor with responsibility for politics at the Sunday Express, took up the GBP70,000 (HK$833,000) post to be pitched into a head-on struggle with Alastair Campbell, another former political journalist who heads Labour's team.

This is all after the Tory's previous 'spin doctor', a former head of public relations at British Aerospace Hugh Colver, quit inferring the job was no longer for him when new party chairman, the aggressive Dr Brian Mawhinney, made clear he would like to see more attacks on personalities.

He subsequently accused ministers of believing they were in power because of divine right, which was not what the party wanted to hear.

Spin doctor is an ugly term, one of those cliched phrases which will no doubt have vanished from the political lexicon within a few years.

It means someone employed to grab the most media attention possible by presenting government policies, actions even mishaps in the best possible light.

Party chairmen, like Chris Patten in his former incarnation, must also play the role. It was Mr Patten who developed the phrase 'double whammy' over Labour's alleged tax plans at the 1992 British general election.

Few knew what the phrase meant at the time as it appeared on posters around Britain, but it provoked a discussion and turned into a good sound bite in its own right.

Kerry McGlynn, the Governor's current press secretary, contains some elements of the spin doctor, with late night calls to journalists to push the Governor's line, his position, his stance on an issue.

Of course no one likes the term. Mr Lewington commented last Friday: 'My approach to this job will be simple. I do not consider myself to be a spin doctor.

'Spin doctors invent sound bites and then spin a web of deceit around them.' Nonetheless, no one believes that. This coming election campaign is quite obviously going to be dirty and vicious.

There will be little left out in targeting personalities.

The battle continues between right and left within the Tory Party despite any temporary attempts to cover it up over relations with the European Union.

With the death of MP Sir David Lightbown, John Major's majority will be reduced to just three when the Tories, as must almost certainly happen, lose the by-election for his seat early next year.

It will mean the Government will be increasingly limited in what it can do over the next 18 months or so, although as former Labour premier James Callaghan showed in the late 70s when Labour was actually in a minority for more than two years, it is possible to survive by basically doing nothing, albeit with a neutered government.

But a majority of three is a worst case situation. There are 50 other MPs in the Commons outside the two major parties whose actions are not entirely predictable.

Hence you will rarely find votes reduced to that absolute majority figure. The current government programme is safe and, in the terms of recent years, relatively uncontroversial.

But what may well turn out to be lacking is the will to survive.

With at least one MP a week currently indicating he or she will not stand at the next election, and coming up with a variety of feeble excuses for pulling out of the fight, morale is still low.

There are parallels with Jim Callaghan's government in 1979 brought down by the 'winter of discontent'.

Then, it appeared impotent and went to the polls in a mood of defeatism in the face of huge public-sector unrest. That election brought in Margaret Thatcher and the continued Tory Government since then.

Whether or not the sea of change now will lead to a decade or more of Labour Government is ridiculous to speculate upon.

Nonetheless there is an acceptance by even the most senior ministers that the public mood has changed against them and the question is not if they lose the election, but what will happen when they do.

That is why Chris Patten's name is being bandied about on the dinner party circuit.

The right of the party is happy to see him staying in Hong Kong until the end of June 1997.

It means he might well not be back and in a position of influence until any issue of a successor to losing party leader John Major has been chosen.

The left of the party, the political home of Mr Patten, would love to see him home beforehand, albeit recognising that such is a near impossibility.

Mr Major keeps directing his ministers to regain the political initiative, but the tense friction within the Cabinet keeps coming to the fore.

The fractious Dr Mawhinney, an unattractive figure whose harsh Ulster accent will do nothing for voter appeal in English marginal seats, has taken the stance of firmness above all else.

That has led him into recent clashes with the Transport Secretary over his emphasis on the need for improvements in public transport and with Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine who himself wants to co-ordinate ministers' activities to best effect.

Dr Mawhinney also clashed with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, who was forced to repudiate a newspaper report based on a briefing by party officials working for the chairman.

Many MPs feel that Labour's high ratings at the polls are due to the efficiency, indeed ruthlessness, of Tony Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell.

So into that cocktail comes the new spin doctor, Charles Lewington.

Hopes are high that he will be able to at least engineer some media victories for the beleaguered Tories, however tough their plight.

It may be too late though, as the once spin-doctor general Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's press secretary, commented: 'An entire National Health Service of Tory spin doctors is of no avail if a Tory Government is unclear of purpose, indecisive and irresolute.'