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Why Blair decided to rescue Phoenix
TV pictures of condemned calf forced Labour's hand, reports George Jones

April 27, 2001 The Daily Telegraph (London) by George Jones
PHOENIX the calf enabled Downing Street to turn potentially the biggest public relations disaster of the foot and mouth epidemic into a pre-election publicity coup for the Government.

The timing of the decision resulted in "Blair saves calf" headlines on the main 10 o'clock television news programmes.

Although the Prime Minister has presided over the culling of more than two million cattle, pigs, sheep and lambs, he was able to pose as the saviour of a calf which had captured the nation's hearts.

Having achieved the dramatic effect of the announcement, Downing Street yesterday attempted to down play the Prime Minister's involvement, in case it was seen as a cynical political decision.

The Government mounted a determined effort to deny suggestions that the culling policy had been eased to save the life of one appealing calf, while hundreds of other farmers had seen their healthy cattle slaughtered as part of the campaign to eradicate the disease.

According to Mr Blair's official spokesman, it was Ministry of Agriculture officials who decided to spare the calf - those same officials who were reported in The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday as declaring "Phoenix has to die".

Downing Street said the first discussions on reducing the number of cattle killed were between Jim Scudamore, the Government's chief vet, and Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, last Friday - several days before Phoenix's plight became headline news.

Further discussions were held earlier this week with a final decision taken on Wednesday after consultations between Mr Brown and his officials and then between the Agriculture Minister and Mr Blair in Downing Street at 5pm on Wednesday.

The plan was for Mr Brown to announce the policy change in a Commons statement yesterday.

However, throughout Wednesday the fate of Phoenix dominated the news bulletins - particularly the shots of ministry officials trying to gain access to the Devon farm to kill the calf.

Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, was alerted to plans by the Mirror to launch a campaign to save Phoenix.

Before becoming Mr Blair's press secretary, he was the newspaper's political editor and was aware of the power of the tabloids to whip up public emotion.

Instead of waiting until the following day for Mr Brown to make the announcement - which would have meant another 24 hours of headlines portraying Maff and the Government as heartless - Downing Street decided to bring forward the decision.

The Mirror was told - though not it seems Mr Brown, who was expecting to tell MPs first. The paper had news of the reprieve in its first edition. Downing Street also contacted the Press Association which ran a "snap" announcement on its wires at 9.49pm on Wednesday.

It said: "Week-old calf Phoenix, which survived a foot and mouth cull at a farm, will be allowed to live, Downing Street said tonight."

The news that Phoenix had been saved as a result of Mr Blair's intervention dominated the 10pm BBC News.

Mr Brown, apparently, did not know about the Downing Street operation until yesterday morning - though he denied that the policy had been changed because of a "young, appealing animal".


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