Watching brief - Amanda Platell on Howard's first big mistake

Michael Howard and his team just don't get it. In politics, it's not what you know but who you know.

On 1 December, the leaving party was held for Nick Wood, former communications director for the Tory party and one of the best in the business. He was departing as part of the bloodless coup conducted by the new carey-sharey Michael Howard.

Almost every political editor of every national newspaper came to pay his or her respects. And that's what Howard and his new marketing team just don't understand: Nick is both respected and trusted in the lobby.

They don't understand it because most of them can't begin to understand what it is to be trustworthy. Nick has a quality rarely found in the Tory party these days - loyalty. He was my deputy for almost three years, and in that time his loyalty to me was unstinting. This was all the more remarkable because his political experience far eclipsed mine and many people would have been resentful of someone being put in over their heads. He never was. When I fell, which was often, his was the first hand extended to drag me up again. Only a few times in my working life have I trusted anyone as much as I trusted him.

He never briefed against his own party, despite the provocations. He was exemplary, which is why the great and the good in British political journalism all turned up: the Sun's political editor, Trevor Kavanagh; the Telegraph's George Jones; the Times's Phil Webster; the Mail's David Hughes; the Mirror's Paul Routledge; the Evening Standard's Charles Reiss; and many, many more.

Off the record, the political editors were shaking their heads with disbelief at Nick's enforced departure. You can't buy experience like that. You can't buy respect like that, either.

Nick takes with him invaluable experience of managing the media at the highest level, in good times and bad. He is unflappable and brilliant at crisis management, having served both William Hague and IDS. He understands how to craft a story and how to deliver a message. These are the skills you learn with experience, not on a degree course. Howard would have done well to remember that in the world of politics and power, it's not what you know, but who you know.

Although I baulked at it, maybe the term "compact" is right for the new tabloid Times. If the analogy is between an LP and a CD, then it's a good one - the consumer gets the same information, without all the lovely pictures, in a miniature and more user-friendly size. But for me, the most startling endorsement for the compact Times came from a friend who commutes on the Tube each day and currently reads the Daily Mirror. She has switched, and loves the new Times.

There has been much muttering from his parliamentary party about William Hague's extra-curricular activities, the latest of which is a column in the News of the World believed to have been secured for a six-figure sum, twice his and their parliamentary salaries.

As leader, he challenged the charlatans he faced in the House of Commons and the back-stabbers behind. Anyone who can survive that deserves every penny he can make out of his experiences.

Alastair Campbell may have departed, but the new Labour bully boys are at it again, indulging in their favourite pastime, picking on a woman. The most recent concerted attacks are against Sarah Montague of the Today programme. Ministers have taken to assaulting her on air, accusing her of being "famous for her interrupting".

This culminated in an attack by John Prescott, nominated to explain new Labour's latest stunt, a "conversation with the nation" (although quite why anyone would choose a man so inarticulate for this task is beyond me).

Montague is doing what every person listening to Today wants her to do - trying to stop ministers from waffling. They make themselves ridiculous by attacking her. I've criticised Montague's interview technique in the past, but she goes from strength to strength.

Greg Dyke has served notice on his presenters that, in future, they will be banned from writing, to avoid another Andrew Gilligan-style embarrassment. In addition to his initial controversial report on the Today programme, Gilligan named Alastair Campbell in an article he wrote for the Mail on Sunday.

Given the circumstances, this was reckless, but it ought not to prevent the BBC's other major commentators from writing elsewhere. Frankly, I'd rather know their views, to judge more accurately their impartiality. And my Wednesday Telegraph and Sunday Times would not be complete without the columns of Andrew Marr and John Humphrys, respectively.

Some journalists can read and write equally well. The money they receive from the BBC for not writing is no compensation to those of us who derive great pleasure from reading them.

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