For a self-proclaimed expert in communications John Underwood was uncharacteristically quiet on Friday, his mobile phone switched off.

Mr Underwood, who played a key role in Peter Hain’s campaign to become Labour’s deputy leader, is a former television reporter for ITN who replaced Peter Mandelson when he stepped down as Labour’s director of campaigns and communications in 1990.

Mr Underwood had a hard act to follow, particularly since his predecessor continued to wield considerable power. Having taken the job in October 1990 he decided to leave after just eight months, to be replaced by David Hill.

The lifelong Labour member then set up Clear, a public affairs consultancy. Clients include health authorities and councils, the League Against Cruel Sports and Erinaceous, the troubled property services group.

Mr Underwood sold Clear to Freshwater UK, a Cardiff firm, in June 2006 but remains at its helm.

“He is a personable, pleasant, amiable sort of bloke, quite open,” said a donor to the campaign.

But on Friday he was far from open, limiting his comment to a terse statement.

Early in the campaign Mr Hain’s main adviser was Phil Taylor but he brought in Steve Morgan, a political lobbyist, to head operations. They have blamed each other for the failure to record donations properly.

Mr Underwood attended meetings with potential donors at this time. Early in the campaign he asked diamond dealer Willie Nagel if he wanted to donate but Mr Nagel declined because he did not want his name made public.

Later Mr Underwood said Mr Nagel could instead donate to the Progressive Policies Forum, a think-tank that appears to have been otherwise inactive since it was set up the previous December. Mr Nagel gave £5,000 ($10,000, €7,000) and lent £25,000. Money from three other donors was transferred from the PPF to the campaign.

Mr Underwood is not listed as a director of the PPF but his statement indicated he may have been involved with it. The group was set up in late 2006 to “advance progressive policies through research and other political activities. It received contributions from several individuals, monies that were available to be used by PPF in different ways.”

The think-tank’s sole director is lawyer Gregory McEwen and it has not set up a website or put out public reports.

One donor said he was unimpressed with how the funding had been handled. “It raises big issues about the competence of the campaign and the people involved and inevitably these questions must lead to the secretary of state.”

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