- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 26, 2002

WINCHESTER, England — Talk about bad form. The tiff that developed here in Britain last week over Downing Street's maneuverings to increase Prime Minister Tony Blair's role at the Queen Mother's funeral has exposed Mr. Blair, and his trusted spokesman Alistair Campbell, as monumentally gauche, grasping and, in the view of many Britons not very trustworthy. On the latter point, it only probably reinforced a perception that was rather widespread already, but there are murmurings now that the scandal may cost at least Mr. Campbell his job. Britain's acerbic spinmeister may be hoist with his own petard.

It has not helped any that a former civil servant, Sir Richard Parker, a permanent secretary under Mr. Blair until 2002, accused the prime minister on BBC1 of running a tight ship to the point of resembling Hitler's Third Reich. He said Mr. Blair had centralized so much power in a small clique in Downing Street that other government departments suffered. In this scenario, Mr. Campbell is among the most powerful players, or used to be.

Those who recall Bill Clinton crying a televised crocodile tear at the funeral of the late Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown will nod their heads knowingly here. In the name of politics, a certain type of publicity hound will take advantage of the occasion, no matter how solemn or sad it may be. The former U.S. president and the current British prime minister have more than a few things in common. When it comes to spin they are masters, until caught, of course, when their actions start looking terribly tawdry.

It seems that Mr. Blair was dissatisfied with the lack of prominence he had been accorded at the lying-in-state of Britain's much-beloved Queen Mother, Elizabeth, who died last month. Not that Mr. Blair is one of the family, but that counts for nothing when you are looking for face time on television. It was one of those occasions that brought the country together, and which made people reflect on the end of an era in all the best ways. Unlike the funeral of Princess Diana, in which Mr. Blair himself was heavily involved, and which brought out a treacly kind of sentimentality in the British, the Queen Mother's passing inspired the nation.

As reported by the London Spectator, the prime minister's office tried outrageously to put pressure on a parliamentary protocol official, sporting the medieval-sounding title, Black Rod. No less than 24 telephone calls were exchanged between their offices about what was expected of the prime minister. He even contemplated stealing the queen's limelight by walking on foot to Westminster Abbey. This too was nixed by the protocol official.

When it came out, the entire story was furiously denied by Mr. Campbell, which only made matters worse. An investigation by the Press Complaints Commission, however, revealed that Black Rod had "come under sustained and constant pressure" from the prime minister's office.

How far his cheesy behavior has hurt Mr. Blair depends to some degree on whom you ask. According to a poll commissioned by the Daily Telegraph no friend of the Labour Party to be sure more than half of the respondents believed that Labour is "sleazy and disreputable" (56 percent). (Conservatives can pride themselves on being considered "sleazy and disreputable" by only 33 percent.) As for Mr. Blair and Mr. Campbell, 54 percent and 67 percent, respectively, consider them to be either somewhat dishonest or very dishonest.

Meanwhile the Guardian, a liberal newspaper, published a poll yesterday showing that 42 percent of British voters still say they would vote for Labour if an election were held today. And Mr. Blair gets a 48 percent approval rating for doing a good job. Nevertheless, 49 percent in the Guardian poll do not agree he is "more honest than most" which may be a bit of an odd question to ask about a politician anyhow. Another recent poll found that, in Britain, politicians rank between journalists and real estate agents in believability and that all three are at the bottom of the heap.

Still the effect of the faulty sleaze control of the prime minister's office will be felt. This week the Blair government for the first time conceded the damage was such that the referendum on the euro, tentatively planned for next year, may be postponed. Peter Hain, minister for Europe, admitted that the government does indeed have a "trust problem," which will have to be overcome before the vote is called. Mr. Blair is much too careful a politician to call a referendum he is not sure of winning.

If Mr. Campbell becomes the scapegoat, Fleet Street will not be crying any tears, that much is for sure. The cover of the satiric magazine Private Eye last week sported a picture of Messrs. Blair and Campbell under the headline, "Blair's Fresh Start." "From now on it's no more spin," Mr. Blair's talk bubble says. His press spokesman's bubble replies, "I think that'll play really well."


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