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Monday, 17 July, 2000, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Most damaging leak yet
Prime Minister Tony Blair on BBC TV's Question Time
Tony Blair pledged to sack leakers
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

Just 10 days ago Tony Blair promised to sack anyone - including ministers - found leaking internal government documents.

His tough talking came after two memos on the dangers of Britain staying out of the euro were passed to the press.

They came as the prime minister was in the middle of his worst few weeks in office and he was determined to portray himself as strong and in charge.

Well someone either did not get the message or does not care, and the government has now been hit by the most embarrassing and high-level leak yet.

For the first time, a copy of a memo from the prime minister himself has found its way into the hands of the Sun and Times newspapers - both part of Rupert Murdoch's News International group.

The memo reveals that, back in April, the prime minister was deeply concerned that both he and the government were seen as out of touch, soft on crime, anti-family and not standing up for Britain.

And it shows the full extent to which he had clearly been rattled by William Hague's attacks on law and order and asylum seekers.

Mid-term jitters

Downing Street has dismissed the contents of the memo as the normal discussions over presentation that are carried out by any government.

To an extent that is right, but the fact that it confirms what many - particularly the opposition - had been claiming about the government's mid-term jitters is particularly embarrassing for Mr Blair.

It also confirms what critics on his own side have been saying about ministers' failure to get across a positive message - despite all the efforts of spin doctors.

Most pointedly, Mr Blair accepts he is as much to blame as anyone and orders that, when new strategies to regain the initiative have been worked out, he should be closely associated with them.

That shows more clearly than ever before how much reliance he puts on his own image with the voters.

And, indeed, he followed through with a series of personal performances - including the disastrous appearance at the Women's Institute conference - aimed at putting the government back on track.

His attempt to gain an advantage over law and order also backfired dramatically when, as hinted at in the memo, he launched his much-derided plan to force police to haul drunks off to cashpoint machines for on-the-spot fines.

Fightback strategy

The memo also shows that, as long ago as April 29, Mr Blair had been thinking of taking his chief spin doctor Alastair Campbell out of the front line.

Many had assumed that Mr Campbell's recent decision to stop briefing the media on a regular basis was a decision taken after PR disasters such as Mr Blair's appearance at the WI.

Mr Blair has recently denied this and the memo states he was already thinking of changing Mr Campbell's role, along with that of Cabinet Office minister and confidante Lord Falconer, to "free up their time" to concentrate on drawing up the fightback strategy.

Critics will see that as further proof that Mr Blair relies on spin doctors and focus groups rather than developing policy from a set of strongly-held personal beliefs.

Needless to say, an investigation has been launched to find the leaker and, this time at least, it is likely to be taken hugely seriously.

Such inquiries are routinely set up after a leak but never produce a culprit.

And it is widely accepted that there is usually little desire to probe too far unless the buck stops at a minister's door. This one may well be different.

Discounting a suggestion that the leak came from someone trying to help the prime minister by showing he was ahead of the game - Mr Blair and Downing Street will be deeply concerned that there is a mole buried deep inside government.

Suspicion will centre around certain ministers who may have an axe to grind, disillusioned aides and civil servants.

However, even if the culprit is found this time, Mr Blair may not want the affair to become public for fear of either exposing a fatal rift within the government or forcing the leaker into the open where he or she might do even further damage.

No, the way he will want to deal with this one is to have the leaker quietly taken outside and shot - figuratively of course.

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See also:

17 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Inquiry into leaked Blair memo
17 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Full text of Blair memo
12 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Blair moves back to substance
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