ANY civil servant acting as spokesperson for the prime minister has an exceedingly difficult job to do. One word out of place and the media will make a meal of it. At a press briefing Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's spokesman and the first of his kind to become a public figure, once referred to a senior minister, who was not in favour at the time, as being “semi-detached”. Did he deliberately drop the hint at the prime minister's request or was it just a careless slip of the tongue? (The minister lost his job shortly thereafter.)
The reference by Tom Kelly, one of Mr Blair's spokesmen, to the possibility that Dr David Kelly, the government scientist whose suicide is being investigated by the Hutton Inquiry, was something of a “Walter Mitty character” has understandably caused an uproar. Mr Kelly's explanation yesterday was not convincing nor was Downing Street's performance on Monday when it first denied that the words had been used and only later admitted that the press reports were correct. It is also worth asking why Downing Street feels it necessary to brief the media on its opinion of Dr Kelly when this is a matter that Lord Hutton will presumably be enquiring about in due course. Blunders of this kind happen and under the pressure of events can sometimes be condoned. But Downing Street has lost all credibility as a source of reliable information and accordingly must expect the worst interpretation to be put on its actions. Alastair Campbell and the Prime Minister himself are responsible for this lamentable state of affairs.