The cover of Alastair Campbell’s fourth volume of diaries shows two men in suits. In the foreground is former British prime minister Tony Blair, looking downcast and worried. Over his right shoulder, a blurry, spectral figure, is a serious-looking Campbell.
This gloomy duo reflects the book’s title, The Burden of Power: Countdown to Iraq. It was the causes and consequences of that conflict that would have a profound and lasting effect on each man.
But is that photograph itself really an accurate depiction of what was, in fact, a two-handed performance? In terms of public prominence, Campbell was in almost equal focus to Blair.
From 1994, when he joined the then new opposition leader’s staff as media spokesman, to 2003, when he resigned as prime minister Blair’s director of communications and strategy, he was seldom out of the frame.
It was Campbell who devised the ”New Labour” slogan that helped propel the party into government in 1997, and it was Campbell whose own power kept – more or less – the Blair government sufficiently on track to win two further elections.
In truth, Alastair Campbell was more than a spin doctor: he was a spin surgeon, whose deft scalpel-work could either heal or inflict deep wounds, depending on who was on the receiving end. Think Campbell, think of his vibrantly cussing Scottish alter ego, Malcolm Tucker, of The Thick of It fame, of whom more later.
Most extraordinary of all, Campbell has become one of the most famous people in Britain. On his website (www.alastaircampbell杭州夜生活) he refers to himself as ”communicator, writer, strategist”, but his old profession is never too far away.
Campbell, as with his one-time master, may have retired from full-time politics, but the politician within remains a potent spirit, provoked at the slightest touch, and always ready with an opinion.
On Thursday Cameron is in Melbourne, speaking at a Corporate Public Affairs conference dinner (subject: ”Balancing the need for confidentiality in political decision-making in the age of the clamour for public transparency”).
On his way to Australia, he stopped off in Tirana, the capital of Albania. ”I’ve just been doing the Socialist party campaign in Albania; the election was yesterday and we’re on tenterhooks waiting for the result,” he says.
This was on Tuesday, when Campbell was in Canberra, paying a call on his old friend, John McTernan, who is Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s communications director and an old friend of Campbell’s.
Time to seek some professional advice on behalf of the Australian government.
Question 1: On Saturday, an editorial in The Age called on Julia Gillard to stand down. What would Campbell have done if, say, The Guardian had said the same of Tony Blair?
”I’ve got no doubt that at times it did. I’m sure it did. I find it quite baffling to come here and find a country in which the economy is in reasonably good shape, where the government has an awful lot of good things to point at which it has done or is doing. But that doesn’t seem to translate into the opinion polls. That’s a lot to do with the fact so much of the narrative of the government has been about division and divisiveness and that continues. That’s a very difficult environment in which she [Gillard] has to operate.
”I wouldn’t see it in terms of how you deal with one editorial, but how do you keep taking forward a strategy for the future with all this noise going on around you. It’s difficult.”
Question 2: Three months from the election, can the government revive its fortunes from this far behind?
”Put it this way … if the public gets a sense that the story is one of division and disunity, then going into the election campaign, that is death. What I would say is I think this thing with Kevin Rudd has to be brought to a head. And in the end he’s the guy who has to decide whether he’s doing it or not.”
Question 3: So what would you tell him to do if you were in that position?
”Do you want my honest truth?”
”Piss or get off the pot.” (laughter).
Campbell, a long-time supporter of Burnley Football Club, in Lancashire, is fond of sporting metaphors. He may talk of strategies and agendas, but he stresses the importance of teamwork, especially in politics.
”If we had all stayed together as a team I think we’d still be there. I don’t think the Conservatives had an agenda that was anywhere near ours. But far too often, we weren’t together. Part of my job was to hold things together. When we were on song, we were like Barcelona against a minor team.”
In Australia, he says ”The [ALP] team has a pretty clear strategy but you’ve got people running round the pitch kicking each other. You can’t have that.”
WHAT comes up time after time in Campbell’s diaries is the toll Downing Street took on his personal life. His relationship with his partner, Fiona Millar, and his own health suffered accordingly. Was it really worth it?
”It was. I won’t deny it was very difficult at times. If Fiona and I were not very strong people, I think a lot of couples would have called it a day. My kids were, I think, OK. My daughter never knew anything else. The boys, because they knew things when they were slightly different, came through very well. But I thought I was doing something necessary and important. I’ve always been Labour, wanted Labour to win and to stay there. I feel I was given this amazing opportunity to make a difference.”
But sometimes making a difference went too far. Blair’s decision to back former US president George Bush and send British troops to Iraq won’t easily be forgotten. Neither will Campbell’s own role in the preparation of the two dossiers that allegedly ”sexed-up” concerns over Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction to be consistent with the US view.
Campbell appeared before two inquiries related to the matter. The second of these was the Hutton Inquiry into the death of David Kelly, a defence department scientist who committed suicide in July 2003, a week after being named as the source of a BBC report that said Iraq’s military capabilities had been deliberately exaggerated by the British government.
This affair brought Campbell into aggressive conflict with the BBC. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, when he says he now gets on very well with Britain’s national broadcaster.
”Some of our papers regularly write, why does the BBC keep giving a platform to the man who tried to destroy them?” he says. ”I didn’t try to destroy them. I just had a specific argument about one story with horrible, tragic consequences. I’ve always been pro-BBC. We’ve got to keep the BBC. The worst thing that could happen to British media is the Fox-isation of British news.”
As for Iraq, he remains defensive, saying that in time the effects will recede and that the Blair government will be remembered for other achievements, such as more positive foreign policy successes such as the peace deal in Ireland.
”The point for me is I always felt at the time of the Iraq debate that people thought there was either a difficult choice or an easy choice. There wasn’t: there was a difficult choice and there was another difficult choice.
”Likewise with Afghanistan. Looking back, it’s hard to see how governments could have taken a different approach to what America and Britain did. The Australians were an important part as well.”
In the diaries, Campbell quotes former US president Bill Clinton, who says, ”Keep listening to your instincts that got you there in the first place, not the press who want you out.”
Blair, says Campbell, had just these qualities.
”Why Tony became a successful electoral politician was that he had really good political instincts. If you’ve got a situation where 90 per cent of people say they’re opposed to something, you don’t ignore that. But Tony’s strong instinct against a lot of polling and public opinion was to do what we did in Iraq. And don’t forget, he did win a general election after that.”
Running through Campbell’s diaries is a hostile, them-versus-us feeling between government and media. ”A story about the government was only really a story when it was a bad story, and that even when the facts didn’t fit the bad story, they were made to,” he writes. The cure: ”To make them part of the debate, confront them with the reality that they are players as well as spectators.”
Campbell holds to the same view, even if the M-word now includes forms of media only in their infancy 10 years ago. He thinks it is still possible to relay an effective message with Twitter or other forms of social media. ”Provided you have a clear strategy it gives you more direct access. You can be unmediated in a way that traditional mainstream media are mediated. For example, I’m talking to you now, you make the decisions to what I say.”
”I won’t change it though.”
”No, you can decide. Using social media properly can be a fantastic social tool.”
”But many use it improperly, without thinking.”
”Which is why I always say if you’re involved with any organisation, your first question should not be ‘what do I say?’ – it should be, right, what is our objective, what are we trying to achieve, what is our strategy to do it? Only once you have those things should you even be thinking about what you’re saying publicly.”
Campbell enjoys his freedom these days. He still has depressive moments, but largely he says he’s content. ”If you ask me if I was happy most of the time I did the job, the answer is probably no. Am I happy that I did it? Yes.”
Ah! Malcolm Tucker! Expecting a fusillade of curses, I asked Campbell ever so gently about his resemblance to television’s whirling dervish of spin.
”Heh heh heh. I’ve got to tell you, one of my sons got his laptop out and said, ‘Dad, I want you to promise me this is what you were like in Downing Street.’ He played a clip of Tucker in The Thick of It lacerating a minister. He said that is one of the best bits of television I’ve ever seen.”
Campbell and Peter Capaldi (the actor who plays Tucker) once met face to face at a London charity ”swear-off”. ”The challenge: to get the most f-words into a one-minute rant.” Campbell – ”And f–k me if the f—–g f—-r wasn’t f—-d absolute f—–g f—ery” – won, but only because Capaldi was stopped in mid-f–k when it was discovered their rants were being broadcast into a children’s creche.
Actually, Campbell loves the show. ”In great satire there has to be a germ of truth. The germ is this guy at the centre trying to keep government ministers broadly on message and control the message to the media. That’s pretty much what I’m trying to do.”
FROM HIS OWN MOUTH
“GB [Gordon Brown] was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt, a red tie, shoes that weren’t cleaned properly and socks that fell down around his ankles. TB [Tony Blair] was wearing Nicole Farhi shoes, ludicrous-looking lilaccoloured pyjamas and a blue smock. After GB left, I said he looked like [spoof 1960s spy] Austin Powers.” The Burden of Power
“On Saturday, I followed one of those web discussions and I thought I clearly am a very deeply evil person, I am the devil, and I ended up laughing. There’s nothing you can do.”The Independent
“As I left, TB had said, ‘You do realise I will phone you every day, don’t you?’ I said yes, and I hope you realise sometimes I won’t be there.”The Burden of Power, AC’s last day at No.10
“These [cabinet] reshuffles, like pregnancy, dentistry and exams, were further proof that pain has no memory. I didn’t know how many we have done now, but until a new one starts, you forget how awful the process is.”The Burden of Power
“Nobody who has known depression would wish it on their worst enemy. “Tweet
“He [Blair] came back and we went through some of the hard questions on Iraq. The hardest was ‘Why now? What was it that we knew now that we didn’t before that made us believe we had to do it now?’ It was not going to be at all easy to sell the policy in the next few months, especially because GWB [George Bush] was so unpopular in the UK.”The Burden of Power
The Burden of Power: Countdown to Iraq is published by Arrow Books (Random House), $24.95.
Michael Shmith is a senior writer.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.Categories : 杭州龙凤