DROWNING ST PRESS OFFICE

The formative years of my PR career were spent in a trade’n’tech agency supporting clients such as an industrial food pump manufacturer, an electronic components distributor and a business that produced plastic bags to protect microchips from electrostatic damage.  Not exactly the stuff to excite London-based PR girls.

My job was to get any journalist interested enough to write about my clients.  Given the nature of the clients, national press coverage was as common as hobbyhorse droppings.  I repeatedly asked myself why I hadn’t chosen political communications, a career route where, I was sure, begging wasn’t a skill necessary to secure national press attention.

I am equally sure that Downing Street’s communications department left work for the weekend after announcing Gideon’s third budget hoping for a new week of headlines not bothered by the 50p tax rate nor the ‘Granny Tax’.  They needn’t have worried.

First came the Sunday Times exclusive that Peter Cruddas, a little known Tory Party fundraiser, was offering a private dinner with Dave and an opinion on Government policy in return for a £250,000 ‘donation’.

Cruddas’ rapid resignation was secured just in time for David Milliband to come in from the political cold with the immortal line: “George Osborne thinks it is acceptable there is no tax on caviar, but it is fine to tax a pasty.” At a stroke, Pastygate was born.

Then, just as the pasties were starting to cool, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, when asked what advice he had for motorists facing the fuel shortages should tanker drivers to go on strike, suggested stock-piling petrol in jerry cans in the shed at home.

Halfords quickly reported brisk trade on the sale of jerry cans and the Fire Brigade Union challenged the intelligence of the advice.  Panic at the pumps followed as we queued for the rapidly diminishing supply of motion lotion. Then Dianne Hills tragically suffered 40 percent burns while siphoning petrol from one container to another in her kitchen. There was a chorus of calls for Maude’s resignation.

And then, to top off the week from hell, George Galloway and his Monster Raving Looney ‘Respect’ Party recorded a barnstorming majority in a by-election in Bradford, picking up four times as many votes as the coalition candidates combined.

George, best known for pretending to lick milk from the hands of Rula Lenska on a reality TV show, tweeted after his success that he hoped to: “…  live up to your expectations. Shattered but happy after the Blackburn triumph.” Easy mistake to make, I suppose.  Both towns start with a ‘B’ and Blackburn is only 40 miles away from Bradford.  So George is hardly a worthy conqueror for the Conservatives, even in Yorkshire.

More cynical minds than mine have suggested that the whole Petromageddon story was a deliberate strategy to remove the ‘cash-for-dinner-with-Dave’ story from the news agenda. A long-term believer of the ‘cock-up, not conspiracy’ theory, I prefer to think that even No 10’s comms department is more often flat footed by a Darwinian comment than a badly conceived Machiavellian plot.

Either way, Danny Finkelstein, executive editor and chief leader writer at the Times, summed it up well, observing that:  “No one is going to put the Government’s communication strategy for the past week on their CV.”  Indeed!

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