Charlie Whelan says . . .

Don't believe it - "Government plans law to curb power of spin-doctors"

Yes, this was the Independent's lead story on Monday, and that was before news came of the suspension of Ian Jones, who was Martin Sixsmith's deputy at the Department for Transport. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. All this is apparently in response to the Jo Moore-Sixsmith affair, and nothing to do with it being a minister who lied, and not a spinner. Never in the history of Westminster gossip has so much rubbish been written by so few to the total uninterest of so many. What worries me is the way that such an inefficient civil service has managed to spin that all the problems lie with political spinners. It really should be known as the self-serving service, so determined is it to protect its power.

When I entered the Treasury with Gordon Brown, Terry (now Lord) Burns, a political appointee under Thatcher, was in charge. He spun the press more than the head of information, but wasn't good enough at it to save his job. Unbelievably, he was once tipped for the top job in Whitehall, just as Sir David Omand was on Monday in the Times. Apparently he is "charming and ambitious and gets on well with his colleagues". We know this because Jill Sherman, the well-regarded Whitehall editor, told us. Now, you may think that having a Whitehall editor would be a waste of time because the senior civil servants aren't supposed to talk to the press. You would be wrong. They love briefing hacks and are often quite prepared to stab ministers in the back.

I hope all civil servants are banned from briefing the media, except those authorised to do so. But I bet this won't happen. Wasting government time on a bill to curb the non-existent powers of spin-doctors is as stupid as wasting time banning people in fancy dress from hunting vermin.

Show Hide image

Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.