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Mr Corry's e-mail was no great crime

June 9, 2002 

The Government, according to its critics, has been gripped by a new form of McCarthyism. Guilt by association was a favourite political ploy of the drug-addicted, bullying senator from Wisconsin, and it is increasingly said to be Labour's chosen method of undermining opponents.

Last week Government ministers were accused yet again of operating a vicious smear machine. This was prompted by the revelation that an aide to Stephen Byers, the former Transport Secretary, had instructed the Labour Party to check on the political backgrounds of senior members of the Paddington Survivors Group. "Basically, are they Tories?" asked Dan Corry, the special adviser to Mr Byers, when he issued the order, implying that he hoped to dismiss the group as nothing more than a bunch of opportunistic Right-wingers. What was particularly repellent about this move, fulminated Labour's accusers, was the apparent slur on the integrity of Pam Warren, the former leader of the group, who has shown enormous bravery in coping with her horrifying injuries from the Paddington rail crash.

Yet, for all the outrage it has provoked, Dan Corry's action is far more complex than the nasty political smear it has been portrayed. As a former Labour adviser myself, I came to know him well. Decent, straightforward, honest, he could never be described as a bully or a cynical manipulator in the mould of Alastair Campbell or Peter Mandelson. Despite the fact that Pam Warren has been the focus of the story, Mr Corry never actually instructed Labour researchers to carry out a check on her. Indeed, in his e-mails, he specifically said that he did not want information on Mrs Warren. More importantly, his request has to be seen in the context of high profile campaign that the Paddington Group was running against Stephen Byers at the time. Pam Warren had openly accused him of being a liar, claiming that at a private meeting on September 12 last year he had revealed that Railtrack would be soon be put into administration. But in direct contradiction of this testimony, Mr Byers told MPs that he did not reach a final decision on Railtrack until October 5.

It was Mrs Warren's attack on his truthfulness that was ultimately to cause the downfall of Mr Byers. But the Paddington group, in destroying Mr Byers, had surely undermined its own moral authority. For it had entered an arena which had nothing to do with rail safety. By making claims that Mr Byers had "misled" the House of Commons over the renationalisation of Railtrack, the group was playing the political game as ruthlessly as any opposition party - and therefore left itself open to a political response.

The Paddington survivors cannot have it both ways. They cannot sit on the moral high ground and simultaneously be in the vanguard of an orchestrated campaign to drive a Cabinet Minister from office. Just because Mrs Warren is so courageous and her cause is so admirable does not mean that her entire group should be sacrosanct, its actions beyond any criticism or scrutiny. The Government, though, has encouraged just such a belief with its cult of victimhood, whereby policy is surrendered to the emotional demands of those who have suffered. So, for example, the Home Office has allowed policing in London to be dictated by the Lawrence family, who lost their son Stephen in a racial killing, while the establishment of the Bloody Sunday inquiry in Northern Ireland was motivated by a similar appeasing mentality. It is precisely because of this outlook that ministers, terrified of not appearing to be on the side of the victims, have been deeply embarrassed by the row over Pam Warren and have been trying to defuse it by throwing around official apologies like confetti. The grovelling by Alistair Darling, the new Transport Secretary, who obviously wanted to distance himself from the old Byers regime, was particularly abject.

Mr Corry himself has expressed his sincere regret. Yet it was understandable that he should want to check the credentials of his minister's assassins. As it turned out, Mr Corry's suspicions were not unjustified, in that the public relations officer of the Paddington Group, Martin Minns, had spent most of his adult career working for the Conservative party. In fact, Mr Minns provided John Major with his famous soapbox during the 1992 Election. There is nothing wrong with this information being placed in the public realm. After all, the Conservatives have never had any hesitation in revealing the political affiliations of supporters of Government policy.

During the row over the refusal of an Oxford place to Laura Spence, Conservative MPs jumped with glee on the fact that Laura's headmaster at Monkseaton school in Tyneside, Dr Paul Kelley, was an adviser to the Labour Government, arguing that this negated his complaints about "elitism". Similarly, the Tory party has regularly highlighted the donations made to Labour by those receiving Government jobs or business - only recently the Tory MP Tim Collins was expressing his outrage that the contract to supply smallpox vaccines had gone to a firm which gave £50,000 to Labour in 2001.

We should also recognise that Mr Byers's department, like the Paddington group, was engaged in a campaign to destroy his reputation and that of his advisers. The notion of Civil Service neutrality meant nothing to bureaucrats who, for political purposes, continually leaked sensitive material from the Transport department. They succeeded in driving the widely-loathed Jo Moore, Mr Byers's spin doctor, from her job, first by revealing her notorious e-mail of September 11, when she said that it was a good time to "bury bad news", and then by pretending that she had tried to release more unwelcome news on the day of Princess Margaret's funeral. This second charge was a fabrication but it was enough to finish her.

Now Dan Corry has been smeared in the same way. After he left his job last month, along with Mr Byers, a civil servant obviously hacked into his computer and then made public the most damaging correspondence.

In this latest row, it the Government which is the real victim of the political black arts of spin. Labour, for once, is more spinned against than spinning.

By Leo McKinstry. Copyright © 2002 of Telegraph Group Limited.

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