Thursday, March 25, 2004

Blair appoints former John Major spin doctor

Like asking the Kennedys for security asking Jeffrey Archer to look over your taking a nap at Dr. Shipman's wouldn't think anyone would seriously seek PR advice from the chap who ran John Major's 1997 campaign. But that's just what the prime minister has done! The man chosen for the new job of Permanent Secretary for Government Communications is one Howell James, who ran the Tory '97 campaign and was also briefly the Hinduja brothers' PR. This job was created post-Hutton on the odd, semi-theological grounds that if the Government's PR was run by someone who was officially a Civil Servant rather than a Special Adviser, then there was no chance that any spin might creep in. How the government communications service can possibly not be accused of serving the government's interests bewilders me, I have to say. Isn't that what it's for? And what sort of mysterious breath of heaven cleanses these characters of any possible political taint? Couldn't a life spent in the service of the State render you more, not less, likely to bow to the will of power?

But exactly what makes Mr. James an impartial civil servant and not a political appointee is hard to say. He has leapt directly into a permanent secretaryship from his business without passing through any time spent in the public sector. Whoosh! I know that, of course, his appointment is under the Nolan rules and was carried out by a selection panel blah, blah, blah - but it does sound vaguely like patronage still. He will be pulling down a salary somewhere between £121,000 and a thick £203,000 annually. Now, whatever they may say, it is utterly certain that Mr. James's efforts will be irrelevant to the front line delivery of public services or to the formation of sound policy. He is a propagandist. Which is odd, when the Civil Service is meant to be disposing of 40,000 employees. As a comparison, the job of deputy head of emergency planning for London was advertised yesterday. The salary? A princely £31,000. Now that's what I call efficiency, and far more important than the Tory beef that James is a friend of Peter Mandelson, as if that was a vetting criterion.

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