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28 May 2001

Campbell should get out and solve problems on the bus

Election 2001 - Charlie Whelan awards marks to the parties for their campaigning and spinni

By Charlie Whelan

Labour Campaign 8 Spin 6

Peter Mandelson’s inevitable attack on Labour’s showing was a bit like the Tories’ campaign – they both peaked too early. There are two campaigns going on: the media campaign and the real one. The media think it’s all about spin, and therefore gave the first week to the Tories, who have surprised everyone with their spin machine, led by the capable Nick Wood.

But on policy issues, the Tories have failed spectacularly. Setting aside John Prescott’s punch – which will help Labour – the only real issue, apart from the cut in interest rates, has been the Tories’ “£20bn” tax cut and the disappearance of their Treasury spokesman, Oliver Letwin. Gordon Brown pulled out of a BBC On the Record debate with Michael Portillo in the hope that the Tories would be forced to field Letwin against Labour’s Andrew Smith.

The Millbank machine has been its usual, Rolls-Royce best. The only real problems have been with the Blair bus. The explanation for this is that Alastair Campbell spends too much time in Millbank and not enough on the road. Campbell is no great strategist, and would be far better doing what he did last time: going out on the road with Blair.

Tories Campaign 6 Spin 8

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William Hague hit the ground running with his early manifesto launch. The problem was that the £8bn tax cut was new and, as any election strategist will say, you need months to get a new idea into people’s minds. The Tory spin-doctors obviously believe all that rubbish about how John Major won the 1992 election by getting on his soapbox. This time, it looks awful on TV, and it isn’t working.

The other Tory campaign tactic has been to ignore the London-based media and refuse to hold press conferences – or to make sure they don’t last long. This just makes the hacks grumpy, as Hague found out on 14 May, when he faced a barrage of questions about Letwin and some journalists even heckled him. Now that the polls have moved in favour of Labour, the inevitable fallout in Central Office has begun, and it will get worse. Michael Portillo may think this helps his bid for the leadership, but my guess is that he will be blamed for the Tories’ unconvincing economic policy.

Lib Dems Campaign 8 Spin 8

I have now been to a couple of Lib Dem press conferences, and both have been far more relaxing than those of the other parties. Charlie Kennedy looks very confident and believes that he can do even better than last time. The media give the Lib Dems an easy ride because they know the party has no chance of winning. Their policy on the future of the railways is clearly nonsense, but they get away with it. The other big factor in their favour is that, during the election, they get equal airtime. The Lib Dems have spun the idea that they are completely different from the other parties very well, when in reality they are just as negative.

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