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Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
How to spin a baby
Tony Blair and Cherie with Leo
Choice of photographer Mary McCartney was inspired
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

You have got to hand it to the Downing Street spin doctors - they know how to handle the birth of a prime ministerial baby.

Tony Blair has been having a hard time of it lately with many claiming the spin doctors are not all they are cracked up to be when it comes to averting catastrophes like Rover or limiting the consequential damage.

But they are clearly in their element with the baby "story" and appear to have pitched it just right - so far.

Tony Blair with his family mug
Mug shot
It would have been all too easy to overdo the whole thing and make the prime minister look like he was exploiting his infant for all he was worth.

Equally there was the danger that the spin machine would wallow in sentimentality and, worst of all, actually turn voters off.

So far, however, the relatively minimalist approach appears to have worked wonders and doubtless won Mr Blair sackfulls of votes.

Military precision

The spin doctors' fingerprints have been all over the affair, of course. And that has been enough for some to claim that once the pregnancy was announced, the whole thing became a cynical exercise aimed at boosting Mr Blair's popularity.

The two people at the centre of the operation - apart from the parents themselves - are Tony Blair's spokesman Alastair Campbell and his partner Fiona Millar who is Cherie's personal aide.

From the very start of the pregnancy they planned the whole affair with military precision.

Journalists were given minimal information and Tony Blair made it plain he was not going to pitch his family into the limelight or allow their privacy to be invaded.

Every possible scenario was prepared for and only Lord Winston's controversial remarks, later denied, that Cherie was going to have a caesarean section threw things temporarily off course.

When little Leo arrived, the spinners benefited from some good luck - he was too late for Saturday's daily newspapers which ensured the birth got wall-to-wall coverage in the Sundays which thrive on hugely personal stories like this.

But it also meant they had a second bite of the cherry when the dailies caught up on Monday and repeated the whole exercise.

Family mug

Then there was the famous mug scene with a clearly tired prime minister talking to the press outside Downing Street.

By wearing his casual clothes and nursing a cup of tea - particularly one with a picture of his family on it - he presented the perfect image of new fatherhood, you could almost smell the nappies.

Then, of course, there were the pictures. The choice of Mary McCartney was an inspired one and the decision to sell the snaps at 500 a shot with the cash going to cancer charities was equally inventive.

It presented the Blairs as young, fashionable and caring and, thanks to the appealing nature of the baby himself, ensured they got every front page.

But now is probably the trickiest time for the spinners. There is always the danger of overkill.

Set up

There have already been a few critical mutterings along the lines of "you would think it was a Royal baby", or "they are acting as if they are the first people to have a baby".

The most cynical even suggest the whole thing was deliberately set up to boost the prime minister's ratings in the run up to the next general election.

But these voices are few and far between. Most people are simply pleased for the Blair's and delighted to have some genuine good news dominating the political agenda.

However, that could easily turn to irritation and cynicism if the spinning is overdone.

Now would probably be the perfect time for the spinners to stop and for Leo to spend the next few weeks out of the limelight.

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