Charlie Whelan says . . .

Don't believe it - "Tories fear Blair more than Brown"

When you read about whom the Tories really fear most, pause for thought. When I was a bad-boy spin-doctor, I once hatched up a plot with my fellow bad boy, a certain Alastair Campbell. We wanted to destabilise the Tory party while it was going though a leadership crisis under John Major. The man we were worried about was Michael Heseltine, so we needed to convince people that the weaker man, Ken Clarke, was our real fear.

We prepared a fake internal memo on bogus focus group consultations showing that Clarke was a big danger, and leaked it to a gullible BBC hack who had clout with Radio 4's Today programme. When Today ran the story, the papers followed it up. "Labour really fears Ken Clarke" was exactly the headline we wanted.

I couldn't believe anyone had fallen for

this rubbish. Here was a man whom Gordon

Brown had run rings around and who was probably the laziest politician I've ever met. Fear Clarke? You have to be joking.

So what of the Conservatives and Tony Blair? Up in Blackpool, the sense I had talking to folk - yes, they do talk to me - was that they want Blair to stay. They aren't fooled by his vacuous performance in Bournemouth. The Westminster media may be beguiled by Blair, but the country still sees him as a lying toe-rag. Sure, some Tories do believe Brown would be an easier target, but most think he would revive Labour's fortunes.

Peter Mandelson famously said that he backed Blair over Brown because he was "better box office". Bournemouth proved that Blair is still the best actor in town, and he will lead Labour to another victory, but don't believe it when you are told that the Tories fear him most. They don't.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The awakening of liberal England