Threatening letters on 10 Downing Street-headed notepaper are scary and I admit taking fright. My autobiography, Chance Witness, was on the verge of publication, and I was heading for the Grapes in Narrow Street for lunch with a Foreign Office friend when my mobile phone rang. Would I call my editor’s office urgently? I did. They read me a letter from the Prime Minister’s press office, signed by a member of staff there in the name of Alastair Campbell, and faxed through to the Times for publication. As I listened to the letter my blood ran cold.
Its more gratuitously abusive remarks did not survive the negotiation which sometimes occurs in these cases, so I will not quote all of what, on 26 September, the Prime Minister’s director of communications and strategy intended for publication. What did finally appear concerned an excerpt from my book which had just appeared in the Times. I had described sharing a car with Alastair during the Labour leadership elections in 1994, when he (then assistant editor of the now defunct Today newspaper) and I were going to BBC Millbank to interrogate Tony Blair for Breakfast News. We discussed questions for the interview.
I recall (I wrote) Alastair’s persuading me to doubt the professional wisdom of tackling Mr Blair on why, as an opponent of opt-out schools, he had sent his son Euan (I say) to the elite London Oratory. Alastair (I report) advised me that personal questioning on a family matter would be thought unprofessional and below the belt. His advice impressed me. I cannot recall (I wrote) whether I tackled Blair on schooling while toning down the personal side, or dropped it altogether.
That, at least, is what was in my book. But Campbell’s letter looked devastating to this account. It pointed out that at the time Euan still had a year’s primary schooling ahead. He could not possibly have been at the Oratory. I must have dreamed up the whole episode. Oh – and PS: would the editor mention to me that Campbell would be in touch separately with my publishers, Penguin-Viking?
Robert Thomson, my editor, sounded relaxed. I was not. Alastair would surely have checked his facts, so how could I possibly have had the conversation I seemed to remember so clearly? Had I just fantasised? Was I muddling this with a later conversation? I was wrong on a key fact. The legalistic side of me whispered that even if the claimed example were dud, it did not defame a known ruthless operator to depict him as a ruthless operator, but the human side replied that nothing makes it right to publish something which is not true. Hands trembling, I walked into the Grapes. At lunch with my diplomat friend I tried to take a genial interest in Pakistani politics. I tore straight back to my flat afterwards and dived for the bookshelf.
John Rentoul’s Tony Blair (Little, Brown) caught my eye. To the index first, then page 418:
It was during the leadership campaign that the Daily Express first reported that Tony and Cherie were ‘poised’ to send their elder son Euan to the London Oratory…. Euan, then aged ten, found himself at the centre of a national controversy…. The seeds of doubt sown during the leadership campaign were reaped after the Blairs’ decision was confirmed in December.
I paged back to the beginning of the campaign:
…a glossy leaflet [was produced by the Blair camp] called Principle, Purpose, Power…. The text was written by Alastair Campbell, then still Assistant Editor of Today newspaper.
Mr Rentoul will be dismayed to hear that I kissed his photograph on the dustjacket. A researcher soon found the Express column. 21 June 1994: ‘Blair wants to send son to Tory flagship opt-out school – Exclusive by Jon Craig’…
He has visited the London Oratory school with wife Cherie to discuss nine-year-old Euan becoming a pupil…. Last night a spokesman for Mr Blair confirmed he had visited the school.
I sighed with relief. Meanwhile, another missive from Downing Street. Campbell’s second letter to Penguin was heading for the managing director:
In accepting that he [Parris] was factually incorrect, he is accepting that I did not seek to prevent him asking Mr Blair about his choice of the Oratory for his son. At the time I did not know Euan was going to the Oratory. Nor did Mr Parris. Nor did Euan. Nor did Mr Blair.
Alastair Campbell goes on to say he is ‘advised’ that what I had written was defamatory.
You say that there can be no question of offering me redress. I ask you to re-examine that statement before I take the matter further. [Otherwise] I will need to consider that steps are open to me to ensure that the book is not published until an appropriate correction is made.
Even directors of major publishing houses blink when they see the Downing Street letterhead, and my publishers were not unworried. I am grateful to them for holding their nerve. But one doubt still niggled, for surely Alastair, with all the resources at his command, would have checked before threatening like this. I must find that BBC Breakfast News Blair interview itself – for what if it had taken place before the Express piece? ‘How otherwise’ (I tried to reassure myself) ‘could I have known about the Oratory?’ But Alastair’s apparent confidence had knocked my own. I could not sleep until I had found the archive of Alastair’s and my performance.
Kindly, the BBC did. The interview was on 12 July, weeks after the Express exclusive, and one of a series of three in which Alastair, Justin Webb and I cross-questioned each contender: Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and Tony Blair. I have now watched the VHS of all three. I did ask Mr Blair about his attitude to opt-out schools but pulled my punch by avoiding any reference to his own family or plans. I should have waded in: BBC Breakfast News would have led what was to become a huge story.
I do not think Alastair threatened me dishonestly. I expect he had no recollection of our in-car conversation, realised this was long before Euan went to the Oratory, and concluded I must have made it up. But here’s a twist you may not expect. On sober review of that VHS, I was a feeble interviewer. Alastair Campbell was brilliant. He showed no fear or favour to any interviewee, including Blair. Crisp, dour, well-armed, quick-minded, lucid and brutal, he had Blair squirming. I had forgotten how good he was. I had forgotten, too, his upset later when, on his openly joining Blair, the BBC asked him to quit TV work.
They should invite him back. There would be howls of complaint from the Tories, but I would love to see Alastair in the interviewer’s chair. He would have every interest in avoiding partisanship, for Blair has little left (that Campbell wants) to offer, and his new career would hang on his being spectacularly impartial.
Campbell could tear half the Cabinet limb from limb. He could be another Paxman.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.