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October 12, 2005

The Spin Doctor's Diary - Lance Price

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The Spin Doctor's Diary
by Lance Price
Pp. 393. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005
Hardback, 16.99

Tell us the truth Tony, is Britain being run by a gay mafia?
Thus screamed the front page of The Sun around the time in our island story catalogued in this volume. At the time I thought it was a pretty far-fetched question. Reading this account I begin to wonder. The point isn't that Lance Price is gay (which he is) but that he goes on about it so much. You get the impression that for him Clause 28 and the age of consent are the really important political issues. The Labour MPs he networks with tend to be gay, as do his Tory friends (Matthew Parris, Michael Brown.) The news stories he devotes most attention to tend to be about gay politicians - Ron Davies, Nick Brown, Peter Mandelson, etc., being "outed" by the tabloids.

I suppose because Tories think of themselves principally as individuals or as British they tend to be more matter of fact about such matters. For someone of the Left being gay (or a vegetarian or a cyclist or a student, etc.) is far more politicised. They cling to the moral superiority and camaraderie of being an oppressed minority group. Where I found myself warming to Price was in his description of his key role in handling the defection of the Tory MP Shaun Woodward to New Labour (over Clause 28, of course). Even Price found Woodward ludicrously self important during the protracted negotiations. At times it degenerates into farce with bit part roles for the (gay) disc jockey Paul Gambaccini with his flat being used as a safe house, Woodward consulting his friend Esther Rantzen and concern about what the press would make of Woodward's transsexual sister Lesley.

Woodward's meeting with Tony Blair would go on at such length that fictitious "urgent calls" from Bertie Ahern were required to bring them to a stop. Of an earlier meeting with Woodward, Price writes:

We drank more, white wine this time, and carried on talking. Much if it was a rather self-indulgent monologue from Shaun. It was evident that he had an exceptionally high opinion of himself, that he could be (or could have been) a future leader of the Conservative Party. He was making it very clear that he would need to be confident of a good seat and a good career if he jumped ship.
During a later meeting in Downing Street, Woodward kept up the plea citing his heiress wife. He said:
he needed "for Camilla's sake" (oh, yeah!) to be sure of a job in Government.
Price notes the likely concerns of people like John Prescott and Ian McCartney at Woodward defection:
To be honest I'm not sure myself that I want any more Tories in our ranks, but I'm only here to serve. I just hate their pretensions and their arrogance and their belief that they have some sort of divine right to rule.
Not true of all Tories, of course, but spot on of Woodward.

On the other hand when it comes to self-indulgence Lance Price could give master classes. Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, But considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Upon his appointment as one of Alastair Campbell's assistant press officers he seems devastated that the news wasn't given due prominence. He laments the refusal of Campbell to issue a formal press notice announcing it, etc. He sounds surprised that when he rings up Margaret Beckett to tell her, a mere cabinet minister, what to say, that she should take it amiss. Cynicism oozes from every page. There is the constant naughty thrill as he admits telling lies. Here is the entry for Tuesday 23rd June, 1998:

Alastair appeared before the Public Administration Committee this afternoon great theatre. He was masterful and very entertaining. Denied politicisation of the Government Information Service. But before going in he took a ranting call from Harriet Harman [Social Security Secretary], obviously very worried. He refused to take her calls all morning. Blair came in after his appearance. Alastair called him a "d***head" and said the only problem had been his Blair's comment at PMQ that Alastair was very good at attacking the Tories, something he, and I, are not really supposed to do.
Price records how Blair would send memos to the Downing Street staff to no great effect. The entry for 14th 2000 states:
TB's political note to everybody today was quite funny. They never seem to produce any real action because of our ludicrous lack of an effective command structure and absence of discipline. He has obviously spotted this and says: "I don't write them for fun".
Favourite reading among the Notting Hill set of Tory modernisers is New Labour polling guru Philip Gould's book The Unfinished Revolution. But does Gould always get it right? At the 1999 Euro Elections he bet Tony Blair a bottle of wine that Labour would win - they ended up a full seven per cent behind the Tories. Lance Price recalls going into a meeting with Gould just afterwards and asking:
Where's the bottle of wine then?
Gould's response?
Oh, f*** off.
A crude response but Price can be profoundly irritating.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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Comments

Now that we hear that "Harry Phibbs" is a journalist, "Harry Phibbs" must surely be a pseudonym - surely no journalist can have the surname "Phibbs" - it reminds one of Reagan's spokesman - Larry Speaks.

The Social Affairs Unit seems to specialise in rather odd real names for its authors - we have a "Bunny" Smedley, a "Christie" Davies who is a man. Yet the pseudonyms seem rather poor, surely the "anonymous commentator" could have done better than "anonymous commentator".

Posted by: Jane at October 12, 2005 06:28 PM
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Jane, having met the man I can assure you that Harry Phibbs is real - and really is a journalist. He is a very tall, posh boy (well probably not that young these days, late thirties). Harry Phibbs in person always gives the impression of being a cut-price/poor man's Boris Johnson. Same posh shamblingness, same surface cluelessness. The question is, does he - or Boris - hide underneath that razor intellect, is it all a bluff? Or is the bluff itself a bluff? Are we dealing with a double, or treble, bluff?

Posted by: Jon at October 12, 2005 06:54 PM
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Yes, Virginia, there is a Harry Phibbs.

And he is the first writer in years (at least that I have read) to describe people telling lies as opposed to porkies or (sorry) fibs, or any other term from the nursery. This is to be celebrated. The Times, no less, ran a leader this week about some lying, New Labour git, and about the lies in particular, using every synonym possible. I presume that this is because they like to lie themselves, and thus prefer cute little circumlocutions. The great Phibbs, Virginia, always tells the truth and, happily, calls a lie a lie.

Posted by: s masty at October 13, 2005 10:59 AM
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But the problem is, Phibbs writes very badly. Take a look at the opening sentence. it's a semi-literate jumble of nonsense and the article goes downhill from then on. Phibbs has no idea of grammar and worse, has no idea how to make an article in the least bit interesting. A very poor man's Boris Johnson, in my opinion.

Posted by: Lucinda at July 1, 2006 11:27 PM
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