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David Miller: Spinning the Wrong Way At No. 10

David Miller Online

Why 10 Downing Street is Spinning the Wrong Way

For a government that is based upon spin as much as anything else, it is ironic that Tony Blair’s team at Downing Street has failed to handle the controversy surrounding his wife with more skill. And now, as more revelations and allegations come forward, any hopes the Blairs had of seeing this saga quietly swept away have vanished. The scandal, which is referred to as ‘Cheriegate’, will severely test a government leadership that has not only tried to remain above such controversy but one that has also placed a premium on good public relations or spin.

The fundamental problem for Tony n’ Cherie is that they broke the cardinal rule when dealing with the press and the media: if you are caught, do not try and cover up. When faced with questions that a convicted Australian fraudster Peter Foster had helped Mrs. Blair with the purchase of two flats in southern England, the Prime Minister’s wife and his press office initially denied any involvement. However it was revealed that this was not the case. Mrs Blair said in a statement that she did not mean this to happen, claimed that she was unclear as to how it did and that in her role as the Prime Ministerial consort, high powered lawyer, mother of four and not superwoman, it is quite understandable that it can.

The next mistake that Mrs. Blair made was that she did not make certain that there were no other details left out of this story that if revealed could be seriously embarrassing if not damaging. Reports in The Scotsman newspaper claim that Downing Street also misled the media and public over the extent of Mrs. Blair's involvement in Mr Foster's deportation case. Downing Street stated that Mrs. Blair did not speak to Mr Foster or offer him any legal advice concerning his deportation however if the reports in The Scotsman are proved true then Mrs. Blair not only offered legal advice but also spoke to his legal team regarding their strategy.

Even under this mounting pressure, Downing Street is insisting on maintaining its counter-attack. Mr. Blair has ruled out any government inquiry into the matter and is taking great pains to tell journalists, political opponents and other interested people that the matter has been dealt with and at an end. Here he has a point. Mrs. Blair is not a member of the government and not politically accountable for her actions. There is a strong case that this matter is a breach of the Blair’s privacy. Yet these are not normal circumstances and Mr. and Mrs Blair are not your average couple.

Had the Downing Street press office not been involved, then it is unlikely the fall out for the British government and leadership at Number 10 would have been so severe. Suddenly the statements that the government issues are being accepted with less trust than before, if much ever existed in the first place. This relationship, which even within a system as uneventful as New Zealand’s can be fragile, and this has meant that the issues the government wishes to get across to the electorate are either questioned much more, greeted with scepticism or just lost underneath the sleaze. This is especially damaging to a government and party hierarchy that is obsessed with spin and image and it will give opponents plenty of ammunition to accuse Mr. Blair of leading a government that is all flash and no substance.

Number 10 should have come clean in the first place and admitted what had happened. They didn’t so now they would be well advised to simply answer any questions in a forthright manner and not try and turn this issue into a battle between themselves and Mr. Foster. It is doubtful that Mr. Foster will simply lie down and take any ammunition thrown at him by Number 10 and it is highly likely that he has more information to offer that no matter how credible will seriously damage Mrs. Blair and reflect very badly on her husband. One gets the feeling that this is the sort of opportunity sectors of the British political system and media have been waiting for and if Number 10 and Mrs Blair insist on fighting this battle any further, it will be a challenge their opponents will gladly accept.


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