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Star exposes spin doctors at No 10

PUBLISHED: 08:47 09 December 2002 | UPDATED: 13:09 03 March 2010

As the Number 10 press office becomes embroiled in the row surrounding Cherie Blair's relationship with a convicted conman, Political Editor PAUL GEATER recalls how The Evening Star became a victim of Downing Street spin doctors.

As the Number 10 press office becomes embroiled in the row surrounding Cherie Blair's relationship with a convicted conman, Political Editor PAUL GEATER recalls how The Evening Star became a victim of Downing Street spin doctors.

WHEN Cherie Blair was first alleged to have had a relationship with conman Peter Foster, the spin doctors employed by her husband knew exactly what to do.

They denied the accusation.

They didn't stop to ask whether it might be true.

They didn't look at the evidence that the newspapers had amassed.

They didn't, apparently, even ask the relevant questions of Mrs Blair.

This deliberately blinkered attitude towards a potentially embarrassing story has left the press office looking untrustworthy.

If we can't trust them to find out the facts about something as trivial as this, why should anyone believe them when they tell us what the Prime Minister thinks about Iraq, or the firefighters?

The Star's brush with the press office came at the end of the Ipswich by-election campaign in November 2001.

Mr Blair sent Labour candidate Chris Mole a handwritten "good luck" note on the eve of the poll.

During the campaign Labour had had a handpicked team of spin doctors working in the constituency – and they'd been very keen to keep in touch with the Star on an almost hourly basis.

To be fair, the Tories and Liberal Democrats had done the same.

But Labour couldn't resist running the letter round to the Star as soon as it arrived, and as soon as I looked at it something seemed wrong.

As soon as I read it, it was clear that Mr Blair had spelt tomorrow wrong . . . three times.

It was obvious, we put it on our front page. But the reaction from the Number 10 press office was to rubbish the story.

"It's just a flourish," they said. "It's ridiculous to suggest that the Prime Minister can't spell!"

I spoke to one of Chris Mole's team about this. "That's no flourish," I said.

"You might say that, I couldn't possibly comment," said the Urquartesque press officer.

The following day Mr Blair's former English teacher backed the Star. Ian Robertson, who is now the BBC's Rugby Union correspondent, was his teacher at Fettes College in Edinburgh.

"Tony Blair was always the sharpest pupil," he said. "But if I told him once I told him 1,000 times. There's no double o in tomorrow!"

The next day Mr Blair admitted his mistake.

"There was a pretty lame attempt to cover this up by my press office, but I did make the mistake," he said.

When I met him during his tour of East Anglia earlier this year he admitted that his children had "given some stick" after the gaffe was exposed.

But the real issue wasn't that a Prime Minister, late at night and in a hand-written letter made a simple spelling mistake.

It was that the press office was determined to cover it up – without even asking whether there had been a mistake.

Officially the Downing Street press office is a civil service department – albeit under political control.

Mr Blair isn't the first to employ press officers who share his vision of the world.

Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher's chief press officer, wasn't known for the impartiality of his press briefings.

But the current press officers seem to have expanded this to include all aspects of the Prime Minister's life – and that of his family.

A new concept has been born – that of Prime Ministerial infallibility. We should be grateful that they didn't insist to us that you do spell the word toomorrow!

What the Number 10 press office – and everyone else in a position of power – should remember that you're more likely to be brought down by a cover-up than the original sin.

Just look at the example of Richard Nixon.

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