A wet lunch can save your bacon

Observations on e-mail scandals

If only Dan Corry had gone out for a wet lunch with workmates. Instead, Stephen Byers's adviser sat soberly tap-tap-tapping at his computer in the transport department, sending e-mails to some sub-intelligence operative at Millbank. The e-mails, seeking information about the Paddington Survivors Group, found their way to the Independent and "Canny Danny" now looks foolish.

The Pam Warren affair, named after the Paddington rail crash victim whose lobby group Corry wanted Labour dirt-diggers to investigate, is probably not as evil as it first seemed. What it does tell us, how-ever, is that special advisers send too many e-mails. And here is the shocking bit: Corry sent them during his lunch hour.

Dateline 23 May, 11.29am. We find Corry - whose boss is somehow still Transport Secretary - asking Labour HQ to run checks on Warren's collaborators in the group: "Basically, are they Tories?"

Millbank takes a sloppy look through the party's Excalibur database and gets back to Corry at 12.40pm with what looks horribly like a "dunno about you, but I'm off to lunch" holding answer. According to released texts, the next contact is Corry to Millbank. It is timed at 1.59pm.

How different it could have been if, in his initial e-mail of the day (11.29am), Corry had wired: "Need help. How about a pint at the Red Lion?" The dirt-digging could have been requested amid the murmur of lunchtime boozers and would never have leaked.

At this point, were I Horace Rumpole, I'd snort triumphantly and say: "No further questions." For we have evidence (dread words) of a working lunch consumed at Corry's desk.

Sadly, new Labour apparatchiks do not do things that way. Instead, they are absurdly over-impressed by computers. Their addiction to e-mails is part of the whole West Wing thing. They see themselves in some sort of aide fantasy in President Bartlett's White House: telephone receiver crammed between shoulder and ear, and simultaneously firing off power e-mails.

Watch Channel 4's West Wing carefully, however, and you will notice that CJ (Bartlett's press secretary) and co hardly ever communicate by e-mail. Too risky. Instead, they walk in to one another's offices and - old-fashioned concept - they talk. In one episode, they even went for a drink: in one case only a club soda, but at least it was human contact.

It is odd that Excalibur did not immediately cough up the past links of Martin Minns, the PR man advising Warren's group. The convivial Minns has been around for years, first with the Tories, then with Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum lot. Any good political hack who has put in the hours on the political world's warm-white-wine circuit should have come across Minns. He's pretty obviously not a man of the left.

At Tory Central Office the staff are joyously baffled at Corry's mistake. Aides there have it drummed in to them not to send controversial remarks by e-mail. They can't believe their luck at what has happened.

Tony Wright, Labour MP for Cannock Chase, thinks that spin-doctors should stick reminders above their computer screens, forcing them to think twice before e-gossiping. Alastair Campbell could do better. He could ensure that, at 12.59pm every day, the message "go and have a jar" flashes up on Millbank computers and that the computers then close down for at least an hour. I gather this would go down well with Charles Clarke, the party chairman. It might also reintroduce the special-adviser classes to the idea that politics is a people business, best conducted with a packet of pork scratchings to hand.