Magazine article The Spectator

All for Gordon

Magazine article The Spectator

All for Gordon

Article excerpt

Profile: Charles Whelan, spinner, drinker ex-communist, but neither fool nor fall guy

AND NOW for a case story of spin doctoring. Charles Whelan, spin doctor to the Chancellor, did not care for Peter Mandelson, the Minister without Portfolio. Furthermore, he bore a temporary grudge against the political editor of the Sunday Times. And so, in a moment of blinding genius, he invented a plan that scuppered both of them.

Mr Whelan had reason to believe that Mr Mandelson leaked like a sieve to the Sunday Times. So, in a casual conversation six weeks before the budget, he hinted to Mr Mandelson that mortgage interest relief was to be left unchanged. This appetising titbit was duly passed on by Mr Mandelson and formed the basis for the Sunday Times front-page story of 8 June. Everything was wrong with the story. It was, indeed, the opposite of the truth. Far from leaving mortgage interest relief unchanged when the big day came, the Chancellor slashed it by five pence in the pound, as Charlie Whelan knew he would when he led Mr Mandelson up the garden path. The Sunday Times was left with egg all over its face. Mr Mandelson's credibility was badly dented. And yet neither of them could do anything about it, particularly Mr Mandelson, who should never have been leaking budget secrets in the first place. Game, set and match to Whelan.

It could be, of course, that this story is entirely without foundation. Yet it is believed around Westminster and that counts, in the debased currency of spin doctoring, for truth. In that currency, appearance and reality are identical, and the great budget scam story forms, for insiders, an important part of the Whelan legend.

Mr Whelan is far and away the most engaging of the Labour spin doctors. They tend to lack human characteristics: he most emphatically does not. Most of them are clipped, formal, businesslike, controlled. Like Peter Mandelson or Alastair Campbell, they drink orange juice rather than hard liquor. Charlie Whelan is loquacious, outspoken, barbaric. He is rarely without a drink in his hand. In his way he harks back to a lost world of journalism. He does his business in pubs and bars. Inside the Commons he prefers the Strangers, the Sports and Social and the Press Gallery bars. Outside, he likes the Two Chairmen at Queen Anne's Gate and the Red Lion in Whitehall, from where it is claimed (wrongly as it happens) that he broadcast the latest changes on government policy on EMU last Friday night over his mobile phone to selected journalists.

There is another reason, apart from a marked difference in style, why Labour's Millbank tendency is deeply suspicious of Mr Whelan. He represents an alternative power centre. In New Labour everything is organised and centralised around Tony Blair. To a control freak like Peter Mandelson, a man like Whelan, whose loyalty is to the Chancellor rather than the Prime Minister, can only be an intense irritant. About a year before the election, Gordon Brown was leant on to sack Mr Whelan. Mr Brown refused. He was wise to do so. Mr Whelan provides him with a media power base which works independently of the Blair machine. The lack of a figure like Whelan is one reason why the Chancellor was so poorly prepared to launch a leadership bid after John Smith's death in 1994.

Mr Whelan was once well described by the New Statesman as `an engaging bully who says "bollocks" a lot', but his aggressively proletarian approach to life belies a solid middle-class upbringing. His father was a civil servant and he was sent away to Ottershaws, a Surrey boarding school. …

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