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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I wonder whether the agreement that was entered into by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was accurately reported in the press.

Mr. Beith: It was extremely inaccurately commented on very widely. A fair degree of publicity was given to the precise words that had been used in the correspondence between my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister. I refer those who are interested to the quotable words and not to any unattributed briefing from any source.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): On that point--

Mr. Beith: I was going to say much more about it. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will wait for a while. He may find that I cover something that he wants to say. If not, he can have another try later.

Anonymous briefing can be seriously damaging to Britain's national interest. The classic instance was when the now famous Mr. Charlie Whelan set out to convey that the Government's policy on entering the single currency was roughly the opposite of what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said it was. The Chancellor had produced a

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measured interview for The Times, setting out the information that the Government would put the issue to the British people if and when they judged that the economic circumstances were right for them to do so, leaving open the option of a referendum before the next election.

From his office in the bar of the Red Lion, Mr. Whelan phoned journalists on his mobile phone to say that the Chancellor really meant to say that there would be no referendum this side of the next general election. I remember the incident well because I was phoned by the BBC's "The World Tonight" and asked to comment on the change in the Government's policy, which had come from a good source in government.

The story seemed so implausible to me that I rang our press office, which assured me that there was indeed such a source. One of our staff had been in the Red Lion, off duty, and could not avoid--[Interruption.] Our man in the Red Lion could not avoid hearing the call made by Mr. Whelan, who is never sotto voce. There is no soft pedal on his piano. The Chancellor's measured interview was effectively torn up. No one knew what was the real story, the Government's credibility was damaged and markets were left in confusion. That is not what I would call a good day's work.

Another frequent criticism is that Government spin doctors get their way by bullying and intimidating. Chris Buckland wrote of Charlie Whelan that

However, it takes two to spin, according to Derek Draper--and he should know. The press do not have to play the game, even if, in Buckland's words,

    "the fallout from his"--


    "briefings kept everyone in business for days or even weeks."

The bullying is all bluster. Responding to it in the hope of being given a juicy story in the future is too high a price to pay. Perhaps the Government's recent problems have been greater because more journalists realise that. The spin doctor's bluff has been called.

It is remarkable--indeed, it is poetic justice--that the victims of the excessive use of spin doctor techniques include the Government themselves. The murky atmosphere of anonymous briefing may be seen as a means of assisting the Government, but it is also an environment in which unattributed personal attacks and character assassinations flourish. That did not start with the current Government: John Biffen was famously described as a "semi-detached" member of the Cabinet by what was then referred to as a Downing street source, which was of course Sir Bernard Ingham. Sir Bernard also called Francis Pym "Mona Lott".

There are, however, deep personal rivalries in the present Government, and such enhanced scope and status have been given to partisan press officers that they have caused the Government serious damage. It is not as if they were not warned that that would happen. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) pointed out in an Adjournment debate last year,

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    find themselves out if they do not take action."--[Official Report, 24 April 1998; Vol. 310, c. 1152.]

They have certainly found themselves out.

The Minister most associated with spin doctor techniques, the past master of the black arts, himself lost his senior Cabinet post because someone--we do not know who it was--maliciously leaked details of the private loan by which he had financed his rather grand choice of house. A Cabinet Minister of undoubted talent and dedication, who had an important contribution to make as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, has been lost to the Government because of the culture that he, in his previous role, had helped to create.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: As the right hon. Gentleman is talking about unattributed briefings and the pursuit of personal rivalries, he may wish to cast his memory back. Many of us watched last year's Liberal Democrat conference with great interest, hearing a spate of statements emanating from unattributed briefings by, we are told, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)--that may, of course, be incorrect--and others about the future prospects of the party leader, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). What does the right hon. Gentleman have to say about that?

Mr. Beith: I have never heard of my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey saying anything remotely unattributable.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell- Savours) interrupted me as I was reaching a serious point about the resignation of the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). The right hon. Gentleman did not resign because of any abuse of public office, or any failure of policy--matters for which Ministers should more often resign. In fact, he resigned as a consequence of the culture that he had helped to create, and that has deprived him of the opportunity to give service that some--perhaps even all--of his colleagues in the Government would have valued highly. The Prime Minister may be able to pull waving Danes into his dinghy, but if we are to judge from the reactions of some Labour Members, it will take him a lot longer to pull the right hon. Member for Hartlepool back on board.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): There are practical consequences to the departure of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). My right hon. Friend will know that the north-east of Scotland is highly dependent on the oil industry, which faces crisis as the world oil price appears to be staying low. As Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool was due to chair a task force this week to consider strategies to help the industry. The consequence of his having fallen into a trap is delay in dealing with real, practical problems.

Mr. Beith: That shows how real problems in the real world result from what seem to be games in the hothouse world of Westminster, and particularly of Whitehall press briefings.

One resignation was not the end of the story. Following the resignation of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool, the then Paymaster General--the hon. Member for

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Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson)--also resigned, ostensibly on the same issue, although it somewhat strained credulity to try to imagine that other matters over a period had not contributed. Of course, the title of Paymaster General is something of an historical oddity, but it was spot on when the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West was in opposition.

Then, one of the two most prominent political press officers in the Government's service found himself scanning the job advertisements. Incidentally, can the Minister for the Cabinet Office tell us whether that is all that he now does? Does he sit at his desk reading the job advertisements and sending out his curriculum vitae, or is he engaged in Government work? Unwanted civil servants used to be sent on "gardening leave". Has he not got a garden? Perhaps the former Paymaster General and the Britannia building society could help him. Again, I have a serious point. Will he be restricted in the private sector posts that he can take up because of the access to Government information that he has had? Is he continuing to have that sort of access? We are entitled to know that. Other senior Treasury civil servants would be restricted if they moved out to a private sector post.

Negative briefing about other Ministers and officials was not limited to the Chancellor's team. A Downing street spokesman was quoted referring to Mr. Whelan as "a little oik". I still find it extraordinary that so many Ministers and their advisers should be prepared to inflict damage on their own Government by denigrating other parts of that Government. They fire shots at each other, which make holes in the boat in which they are all sailing, and I do not know why that does not occur to them from time to time.

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