Spin

About three years ago, when I was on the board of Spain’s association of foreign correspondents, I suggested to my fellow members that we should try to organise a meeting with Iván Redondo. By then, he had already become something of a legendary figure. A former advisor to the conservative Popular Party, Redondo had switched sides and been appointed as a chief advisor to the Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, who had just become prime minister.

Having had some contact with Redondo previously, I volunteered to get in touch and try to organise the event, which we envisaged as an off-the-record meeting which would give foreign correspondents a privileged glance under the bonnet of the new government. I spoke to his people and, to my surprise, they immediately said yes, Iván would be delighted to meet with the foreign press. A date was set and our members were informed. Almost every single one of them immediately signed up for the meeting, a show of interest that hardly any other public figure in Spain can generate.

I felt great about all this. Until, that is, one of Redondo’s people called a couple of days before the big date to tell me that something had come up and, sadly, we’d have to reschedule. Another date was set. Unfortunately, a couple of days before that meeting, exactly the same thing happened and we had to reschedule again. I was now starting to worry, because this was, after all, my doing. I was in a taxi in Valencia when the third fateful phone call came from a member of Redondo’s team to tell me that sorry, but yet again, Iván couldn’t make it. The meeting, needless to say, never happened.

Apart from being humiliated by my hat trick of Redondo jilts, I was amazed at the interest he could muster. This small, thirty-something, man had created an aura beyond that of an ordinary government advisor. That was linked, perhaps to his own obsession with pop culture and American-style political spin. A fan of The West Wing, Redondo was, or saw himself as, Spain’s own Toby Ziegler, managing the prime minister’s image with more zeal than anyone before him.

That energy and imagination has been credited for arguably Sánchez’s cleverest political move – the 2018 no-confidence motion which saw him replace Mariano Rajoy as prime minister. If, indeed, it was Redondo’s idea, it was brilliant, like that which saw health minister Salvador Illa step down earlier this year and run successfully as the Socialist candidate in the Catalan election.

It’s hard to overstate how much Spanish commentators have imbued Redondo with an aura of strategic wizardry and even sinister powers. He has been described as “the king of political plumbers”, “the most powerful man in government” and Sánchez’s “all-powerful guru”. On a less flattering note, he has been called a “bible seller” and drawn countless comparisons with the enigmatic advisor to Empress Alexandria of Russia: “The Rasputin of Moncloa”, “Sánchez’s Rasputin”, or even “The Basque Rasputin” (he is, to be fair, from San Sebastián).

His time advising Sánchez has, of course, included its fair share of missteps. Early in his tenure, the prime minister’s team tried to cast him as a hipster heavyweight leader, looking uber-cool in shades as he jetted around Europe to meet his counterparts. A weird set of official photos of Sánchez’s hands as he travelled back from Berlin carried the laughable, spin-inflected text: “The hands of the prime minister show the determination of the government”. Another, much more substantial, error attributed by many to Redondo was Sánchez’s failure to form a new government after the Socialists won the April 2019 election, leading to a damaging political hiatus. Last May’s lacklustre campaign and performance by the Socialists in the Madrid regional election, meanwhile, would have made Toby Ziegler blanch.

But now, Redondo is nowhere to be seen. Having reportedly rubbed many in the Moncloa palace up the wrong way, he was one of the high-profile victims of a recent cabinet reshuffle. So what should we expect, now that a new political season is beginning without the bible-selling Rasputin-plumber-guru? It is tempting to anticipate a new style of government – one that depends less on choreographed moves and sweeping gestures (remember the Aquarius migrant boat episode?) and more on substance – a trend which, it could be argued, is also encouraged by the retirement from politics of the headline-savvy Pablo Iglesias.

However, I have the feeling now that I, my fellow correspondents and pretty much everyone who has offered an opinion on Redondo over the last couple of years, has inflated his influence beyond its true worth. The many conspiracy theorists who have emerged throughout the pandemic have shown that it can be tempting to believe that there is a grand puppet master pulling the strings. The notion of a single scheming genius whispering in the ear of the prime minister while an irate platoon of advisors and ministers are made to wait outside the room is irresistible, but probably not entirely accurate.

So let’s see how much things change over the coming months now that Redondo has gone. In the meantime, all I’ll say is: Don’t worry, Iván, I forgive you.

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