January was a month to forget for the present Government. Day after day the fallibility of government screamed from every headline as crisis after crisis subjected ministers to the intense exposure that follows when things go wrong. 'Nothing new' could be the immediate comment but that, in itself, is precisely the story.
An army of politically motivated researchers and assistants has been recruited by the Government to control politicisation of Whitehall and the spinning of news on a scale never attempted before. It doesn't work.
When the heat is on, Fleet Street cuts a swathe through the smooth-talkers who now peddle the latest soundbite distributed over their electronic bleepers from some mastermind in Number 10 or party headquarters. In truth, you've seen nothing yet. The underlying public mood is benign. The public's assessment of its economic outlook remains positive. People expect to be better off at the end of the year than they are at the beginning. There simply aren't many little groups of resentful voters clamouring to 'get them out'. There will be, but the change will be at its most intense when the economic underpinning has gone and people associate personal unease with the crisis of the day.
In a personal sense I take a degree of reassurance. We found it almost impossible to withstand the relentless flow of hostile criticism flung at us towards the end of the last government. The opposition exploited the underlying mood of rejection. Unique skills were attributed to Peter Mandelson and his colleagues. I was doubtful. Last month, my scepticism was reinforced in spades. Fleet Street turned tooth and claw to the job they do best - purple-passage criticism.
A question arises. What are the spin doctors for? What dividends does the taxpayer earn from the millions of pounds now poured into the propaganda machine that seeks to influence our every thought? I shall define my criticism in the context of the present Government. There is nothing new in principle about what they have done. Harold Wilson employed Joe Haines as Tony Blair employs Alistair Campbell, to twist the news the Government's way. In government, political advisers grew in number during the 1980s and 1990s.
What this administration has done is more a matter of scale than principle even if the scale is formidable. Let me accept then some responsibility, although I hide behind the traditional housemaid's excuse that it was only a little one.
I now believe that we should revert to the practice that existed when I first entered government in 1970. Political advisers were hardly known, the government departments employed civil servants to head up Whitehall's press offices and, with rare exceptions, both officials and politicians recognised and observed the demarcation line that separated government business from political propaganda. It was, I now believe, a healthier, less politically corrupt process. Its clear divide between fact and political spin preserved a degree of integrity that encouraged respect for the system.
Departmental press officers would agree the form of a press release with their political boss, list the facts and set out the answers to likely questions. A polite cough would greet a minister seeking to stretch the truth. 'Perhaps, Minister, that part of your statement might come more easily from Central Office' were words I rarely heard but the knowledge that I might was in itself an important discipline. Under this Government, the replacement of civil servants by party hacks has replaced truth with spin.
Who are this new breed of political advisers and professional spinners?
What do they bring to the proper conduct of affairs?
Too often they have emerged recently from university full of ideas, with ambition, devoid of experience, anxious to get a toe on the ladder that leads to the House of Commons itself. I would rather see parliamentary candidates bring experience and achievement to Parliament. Too often this new breed of advisers identify themselves with the one politician's career.
They become part of a tribe, an inside clique, chatterers with a cause conspiring on behalf of their master or mistress. Every day we read it in the press. A source close to the Minister, a senior aide, an insider have all now added themselves to the more traditional peddlers of tittle and tattle, the junior minister, a senior backbencher, a close political friend. It's too much to expect that the anonymous drip-feed of the rivalries and jealousies of politics could ever be silenced, but what purpose do we serve by adding so many tongues to a world already over-supplied?
I long for the day when a national newspaper blows the whole thing apart.
The leakers, the gossips and the plain disloyal are cloaked in often grossly flattering anonymity. I suppose the flattery is part of the payoff. 'I'll give your ego a boost in my newspaper if you dish the dirt on lobby terms.' It wouldn't be much of a story to write up the thoughts of some unknown researcher or party apparatchik for the motivated, partial bias or bigotry that they usually are.
January proved for me that we would be better off with-out them