Thursday, 9 July 2009

Deconstructing Salmond's Diageo snub

Spindoctors across Caledonia will be deconstructing the "Salmond snubs Diageo" story with some interest today. The moral of the tale seems to be never leave home without your favourite media adviser.

Kevin Pringle, the First Minister’s Senior Special Adviser, acknowledged as the most media savvy spindoctor in Scotland, was on a rare holiday this week, sans Blackberry we’re told. So there was no one on hand yesterday with the persuasive skill to keep the story, and the First Minister, straight when a "diary mix up" left Mr Salmond in a TV studio when he could have been meeting Paul Walsh, the boss of Diageo.

The story so far...Mr Salmond broke off his holiday to come to London on Tuesday evening to vote against the government’s Finance Bill. On Wednesday morning, still milling around Westminster, he discovered that Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy was having a meeting with the Diageo chief executive. The First Minister’s office called Diageo to arrange a meeting for him too (the two men weren’t due to meet until the end of the month).

The time line seems be that on the way to the Scotland Office meeting Mr Walsh received the request and cleared his diary for a meeting at 12.15pm, after his meeting with Mr Murphy. Just short of midday the First Minister’s office cancelled the meeting because Mr Salmond was not available. According to his officials he was in television studio about to go on air.

Short of fire-swallowing live on air there is little that would persuade most Scottish politicians their time was better spent in the company of Andrew Neil yesterday rather than Paul Walsh, the chief executive of Diageo.

Mr Salmond sent Angus Robertson, SNP Westminster leader who has been trying to get a meeting with Diageo on a constituency interest for several weeks, to the meeting instead. Mr Robertson is capable but he is no First Minister, or even a member of the Scottish government whose offices set up the meeting. Labour have tabled parliamentary questions on that conflation of party and ministerial roles.

In perspective the diary mix up, the kindest way of interpreting events, became a story because the First Minister had requested a meeting only to be left looking as if he had walked away from it towards the whirring sound of the nearest camera. Labour loved it because it plays to their image of the First Minister’s hubris, which has him down as a politician who would prefer basking in studio lights to rolling up his shirt sleeves to get on with a complicated economic problem.

But one thing that distinguishes Mr Salmond from other Scottish politicians is that he has the gumption (or the brass neck) to dig himself out of a hole when he is in one. A string of phonecalls to newspaper offices across the land yesterday afternoon attempted to talk the story down to an inter-party spat rather than an outright ministerial gaffe, but that only met with mixed success.

The other lesson, apart from "everyone needs a Kevin", is that Mr Salmond’s press team has done such a number on producing "good news" every single day they have been in government that when the machine stutters it is very noticable. When you walk that tall, for that long then the smallest of slips on the tightrope gets magnified out of proportion.

Today the media caravan moves on to the News of the World, phone taps and the Conservatives. Tommy Sheridan will be reading that one closely. Kevin Pringle, shorn of his Blackberry, presumably won't be.

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