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Keeping the lid on

For all of the nine years that he worked, first as official spokesman for Tony Blair and then as Director of Communications for the government, Alastair Campbell was obliged to defend a huge lie: that all was well at the heart of the New Labour project when, manifestly, it was not.

16 June 2010

12:00 AM

16 June 2010

12:00 AM

The Alastair Campbell Diaries, Volume I, Prelude to Power, 1994-1997 Alastair Campbell

Hutchinson, pp.784, 25

For all of the nine years that he worked, first as official spokesman for Tony Blair and then as Director of Communications for the government, Alastair Campbell was obliged to defend a huge lie: that all was well at the heart of the New Labour project when, manifestly, it was not. Gradually, as the years passed, the tensions surfaced and whispers that something was amiss reached the outside world, but by and large — and in no small measure due to the extraordinary resilience of Blair and Campbell — the lid was kept on. Until now.

The fault lines are apparent from the outset. This volume covers the three years from the day of John Smith’s death on 12 May 1994 to the triumphal progress to Downing Street on 1 May 1997. Gordon Brown, convinced that he had been cheated out of the leadership, behaved badly throughout, setting up a secretive, devious rival court of his own, reluctant to share his thinking on the economy with anyone else — least of all the leader of his party. Peter Mandelson flits in and out, compulsively briefing and counter-briefing, for ever resented by Brown for allegedly defecting to the Blair camp. On top of all this there are large egos to be managed, massaged and contained — so-called Big Guns forever cropping up on the Today programme on little policy trips of their own. The whole thing is a nightmare. This is the job from hell.

Then there are the women: Cherie Blair, Fiona Millar and Anji Hunter — formidable, capable, opinionated and often at loggerheads. Cherie was initially keen on Alastair, but soon goes off him when the first crisis — the decision to send Blair junior to the Oratory, as opposed to the ‘bog-standard’ local comp in Islington — breaks. Fiona, Campbell’s partner, who never wanted him to take the wretched job in the first place, is resentful that it consumes his every waking hour and occasionally involves having to defend what she regards as the indefensible — ‘one day there will be something that even you can’t defend,’ she remarks acidly — premonitions of Iraq?). Anji, the gatekeeper in Blair’s office, is loathed by Cherie (‘only one of us is going to Downing Street’). There are some blazing rows recounted blow by blow and a memorable set-to (while on holiday in France) with Neil Kinnock, who is upset that Blair is trashing his legacy. It is exhausting, even to read about, let alone to live through.

Somehow Blair and Campbell managed to rise above all this and render Labour (which had, after all, by this time lost four general elections in succession) electable again. They are helped by the fact that Blair has a clear idea of what needs to be done and a steely resolve to pursue his chosen path. They are also greatly assisted by the fact that the Conservative Party is, if anything, far more divided than Labour. The Tories are also mired in sleaze; one has to pinch oneself to recall how bad it was. Think Jonathan Aitken, Jeffrey Archer, Neil Hamilton, Tim Smith et al, then add the EU and stir. Oh yes, it was coming down hard.

Campbell’s great strength is that he tells it like it is. Coming as he did from the murky world of tabloid journalism, he understood the enemy. He could smell trouble a mile off. He knew from the moment he set eyes on Cherie’s ‘lifestyle guru’, Carole Caplin, that she was trouble with a capital T. Campbell’s other great strength is that he is fearless. His relationship with Blair was one of equals. He never hesitated to tell the boss things he didn’t wish to hear. There were no no-go areas, personal or public. It is easy to see why Blair became so dependent upon him. Indeed, for me, one of the most startling revelations of the Campbell diaries is how a man of Blair’s apparent supreme self-confidence came to be so utterly dependent on the advice of his press secretary. No doubt there was a similar phenomenon at work with Peter Mandelson.

This is the first of four volumes. There is much more to come. The Blair/Brown fissure is the fault-line that ran through New Labour from the beginning to almost the end. A couple of years back, Campbell remarked to me that ‘some of the stuff about Gordon is so awful that I don’t know whether I can put it in the unexpurgated version’. I suspect he will.

This is as near as we are ever likely to get to the definitive account of the Blair governments up to the moment of Campbell’s departure in August 2003. A brutally honest, relentless roller-coaster by a man who enjoyed total access, but retained just enough distance between himself and his subject to be credible.

I have two reservations. The first is a matter of style. The habit of identifying all the principals by their initials (‘TB said JP and GB were on board . . . JP essential re C4’), often with material in brackets identifying lesser players, can be confusing (not to say tedious) for those outside the magic circle.

My larger quibble, and one with which I suspect the author might agree, is that the problem with the ‘who said what to whom’ approach to history is that one is in danger of overlooking the big picture. Until the Iraq catastrophe, the Blair government — and Brown for all his faults played a big part in this — was on course to be one of the most successful in recent history. Hand on heart, I can say that the lives of most of my least prosperous constituents have changed immeasurably for the better during the last 12 years — and that is without mentioning peace in Ireland.

Finally, one can’t help wondering who will be the chroniclers of the Cameron government. Somewhere, unknown to his or her colleagues, a secret scribbler will already be at work, documenting the rise and in due course, no doubt, the fall of this administration. He will be lucky to do as good a job as Alastair Campbell, or to have so rich a treasure trove of raw material to draw upon.

Chris Mullin was the Labour MP for Sunderland South from 1987-2010. The first volume of his diaries, A View from the Foothills, was published last year. A further volume is due in September.

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