With hygienic vowels, he was fluent in gibberish

Last updated at 10:04 28 October 2005

Alastair Campbell is being turned into a Whitehall unmentionable, a historical non-person discussed in terms not of his personality but of the brutal methods he employed.

It used to happen in communist states. Men could be Chief of Police one day, swimming with the fishes the next.

This was the conclusion to be reached after an intriguing little event yesterday. MPs on the Public Administration Committee had an unusual witness before them. His name: Howell James, "Permanent Secretary of Government Communication".

The "Permanent" bit is important. It indicates that he is a proper civil servant, not a Blairite lackey.

The swanky title does not tell the true story. Mr James, who once worked for John Major, the Hindujas and the Sultan of Brunei, is the first person to hold his c. £150,000 position. His role is not to make sure the Government gets good headlines. It is to make sure that no civil servant feels unduly bullied by New Labour stooges in and around Downing Street.

This distinction was not grasped by some of the dimmer members of the committee. Paul Flynn (Lab, Newport W) made heavy weather of things as he tried to blame Mr James for the rotten Press the Government has been receiving over its smoking ban. Mr James, showing patience, answered that he was interested chiefly in procedures - the way news is released, not the news itself.

He smiled hard at Mr Flynn as he spoke to him. It was the smile of a sedation nurse inspecting a patient after injecting a horsesyringe full of anaesthetic into his bottom.

Mr James is a favourite of Lord Birt, who IS a Blairite lackey. He is also a friend of Peter Mandelson, the lackeys' lackey. If we're going to get personal, let us note, furthermore, that Mr James once walked out with that nice boy Reinaldo, who was later to be found on the arm of Mr Mandelson.

Mr James, we can conclude, is formidably well connected. Yet we are urged to accept that he is a nonpartisan figure. He is not there to speak up for Labour or Conservative. He is there simply to make sure that no Alastair Campbell is ever again allowed to wreak such havoc. Anyone who tries to do that needs to have powerful allies.

With neat, tapering fingernails, springy thumbs, a shiny pate and hygienic vowels, Mr James is fluent in the confectured gibberish of today's political elite. He talks of "securing buy-ins for a more strategic vision for government communication", "embedding communication into the professional skills for senior civil servants", "driving more effective coordination on key cross-cutting priorities" and "building capacity across the communication function both at the organisational and individual level".

After a while Mr Flynn was not the only person in the room to have crossed eyes.

My ears picked up when he talked about "the importance of Phyllis". Was this some powerful Whitehall typist? Perchance the affectionate nickname of a new boyfriend? No. It was the Phillis Report which investigated the aftermath of the Jo "good day to bury bad news" Moore affair - itself symbolic of the Campbell years.

The name Campbell did come up, though Mr James himself initially preferred to talk of "a special adviser at No 10 with special powers". He was later asked by Mr Flynn if he was a student of the "Alastair Campbell book of spin". Mr James reacted sharply, squashing any association with the dreaded Campbell. It was the one moment I saw him approach irritation.

"Behaviours have changed," Mr James assured the committee. Behaviours? The plural is very new Whitehall, suggesting a pseudo-scientific, sociological sophistication. All he was really saying, though, was "we now accept that Campbell was a total disaster". At the risk of tempting fate, I'd conclude that the mandarins - with a little help from Messrs Birt and Mandelson - are regaining control. Smooth, competent assurance is reasserting itself.

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