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Tuesday, July 27, 1999 Published at 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK

UK Politics

Media chief's impossible task

John Prescott: Impossible to spin

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

The government's determination to put the right spin on its policies has claimed its latest victim.

Simon Dugdale - who headed the press office at Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions - has suddenly quit his job.

Insiders claim he is fed up with taking the blame for Mr Prescott's alleged failure to deliver his much-heralded integrated transport policy.

But the Prescott camp are muttering that he failed to put across the positive message on transport and rescue his boss from the spate of bad press he has recently suffered.

Like all Whitehall press chiefs, Mr Dugdale was not a spin doctor but a civil servant who has to maintain his impartiality while serving the government of the day as best he can.

That includes putting policies in the best possible light and supporting the secretary of state when he is under fire.

Impossible task

But many believe he had an impossible task in trying to put a positive gloss on Mr Prescott and his policies.

The deputy prime minister is notorious for his off the cuff remarks which have regularly caused the government deep embarrassment.

A year ago he sparked a huge row during Tony Blair's summer holiday when he was left in charge of the country.

He was attending a photo opportunity on the Thames and held up a jam jar containing a local crab and introduced it as "my friend Peter" - a reference to the then minister Peter Mandelson.

Everyone knows the two men hate the sight of each other, but the comment blew the issue into the open. No press officer could have stopped the media coverage that followed.

Equally it was beyond the skills of any press chief to put a positive gloss on Mr Prescott's decision to close one lane of the M4 to traffic and turn it into a bus lane.

And, in any case, it was Tony Blair who ensured that row burst into the open when he was forced to travel in the lane "for security reasons" when caught in the tailbacks.

Two Jags

Whoever follows Mr Dugdale will also have the regular task of explaining away why the man in charge of the environment has a particular love of big Jaguar cars.

He or she will also have to deal with Mr Prescott's notoriously short temper which has time and again led him into making remarks he should probably have kept to himself.

His short fuse has also seen him dubbed "thumper" because of his habit, recently kept under control, of squaring up to his detractors and unleashing torrents of abuse at them - even former Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan is said to have been on the receiving end of one of these tirades.

And on top of all that, the new press chief will have the daily trial of having to translate into English his boss's latest incoherent comments.

It is not an enviable job description and all eyes will now be on whoever is chosen to be Mr Dugdale's successor.

Since Tony Blair came to power there has been a clearout of virtually all the Whitehall heads of press, with many being replaced by people known to be Labour sympathisers or even former party workers.

The alleged politicisation of the civil service in this way has already sparked a major row and it may just be that Mr Dugdale is the latest victim of this purge.

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