Working for Gordon Brown, a man of Victorian sensibilities and a volatile temper, the second call was invariably greeted with the single word “What?!” repeated with increasing volume and violence as I recounted the misdeed of which he had been accused. Even so, I’d conclude with the essential question that all spin doctors must ask in these situations: “What’s the truth?” Not, “What shall we say?” or, “How do you want me to handle it?” but instead the absolute insistence on knowing the full, unvarnished facts before deciding whether and how to spin them.
Sometimes, especially with Brown, that question provoked an angry barrage of abuse, as if just by asking it, I was implying the allegation might be true. That was good. That was what I wanted to hear. With other politicians, celebrities and friends I’ve advised over the years, you’d instead hear a dread pause, then a hesitant, “Well…”. That’s when you know you’re screwed.
So let us pause for a moment to pity the poor soul who had to call up #David Cameron yesterday and tell him that – inter alia – the new biography of him by Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott would allege that he’d once engaged in a bizarre ritual with a dead pig.
So what’s the truth? Only the prime minister and the porker know for sure, and neither have commented to date. But, in their place, we have a host of unofficial denials from “party sources” or “friends of Cameron”, and some well-informed scepticism from his Oxford contemporary Toby Young.
As a spin doctor, there are two phone calls that make your heart sink: the one from a journalist relaying some excruciating allegation about your boss’s personal life or past history; and the second, the call you have to make to said boss in order to work out your response.