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Palace intrigue

Plunging into the second volume of Alastair Campbell’s diaries is like opening a Samuel Richardson novel.

29 January 2011

12:00 AM

29 January 2011

12:00 AM

The Alastair Campbell Diaries, Vol 2: Power and the People Alastair Campbell

Hutchinson, pp.320, 25

Plunging into the second volume of Alastair Campbell’s diaries is like opening a Samuel Richardson novel.

Plunging into the second volume of Alastair Campbell’s diaries is like opening a Samuel Richardson novel. The tone is breathless and excitable and the dramatic world of backstabbing, tittle-tattle and palace intrigue is instantly captivating. Historians will scour the book for valuable new information. Practitioners of media management will regard it as a classic.

Downing Street rivalries dominate from the start. The impression that ‘the TB-GB riftology’ developed after 1997 is inaccurate. War had been raging ever since Blair won the leadership in 1994 and Brown’s sabotage unit, led by Charlie Whelan and Ed Balls, swung into action as soon as they arrived at No. 11. Campbell is vague on the Granita deal, a seemingly immoveable fixture in the New Labour story, but the probability is that Brown’s henchmen dreamed it up in order to destabilise Blair. So when Blair and Brown denied that they’d agreed a timetable for sharing power they were perceived to be lying and were in all likelihood telling the truth.

Blair’s difficulty was a dearth of top talent. The party had plenty of able middle-rankers but only one figure with serious prime ministerial ambitions. So every scrap of anti-Blair sentiment gravitated automatically to Brown and made him more of a threat.

The Blair-Campbell relationship was evidently warm and strong. Away from the pressure of summit meetings they relaxed by improvising sketch routines in silly voices. Heading to Scotland they always put on ‘mock posh Jock’ accents. Blair loved to entertain his staff with impressions of world leaders, and his version of the Queen is, apparently, lethally accurate.

Some of Labour’s best-known figures failed to shine in power. At the Foreign Office Robin Cook’s head was turned by the grandeur of his surroundings and by the platoons of public schoolboys he was free to order around. Marital problems compounded his difficulties. A great parliamentary debater who genuinely awed the Tories in opposition, Cook comes across as a vain, randy little peacock who relished the attention his love life generated and began to pose like a character from a cheap romance. ‘Planning to marry your girlfriend?’ asks Campbell. ‘My future,’ Cook intones, ‘is Gaynor.’

Campbell writes about women acutely. As early as 1997 he notices that Hillary Clinton is a better strategic thinker than her husband. He liked Cherie but found her mixture of strength and vulnerability maddening. At a press lunch for Blair he keeps an eye on Times columnist Mary Ann Sieghart. ‘She adores Tony and herself in equal measure.’

Mo Mowlem is portrayed as profoundly ill-suited to the Northern Ireland department during the early stages of the peace process. A professional tone was desirable and a mastery of nuance essential. Mo had neither. Yet she resented being sidelined whenever Blair and he flew in to ‘bang heads together’ and press for a settlement. In one fascinating passage she acts up like a churlish schoolgirl when being briefed from Downing Street (‘by remote control’ as she puts it) by Blair and Campbell, who felt she needed detailed coaching in case her lax manner capsized the negotiations.

Campbell is vicious about Clare Short, whose sacking he advocates throughout the period covered by these diaries. One of her first interventions in Cabinet is to offer to forgo her ministerial car (thus putting pressure on others to do the same). Campbell thinks of her as Mother Teresa ‘but with an ego the size of an elephant’s arse’.

He reserves his warmest praise for Bill Clinton, who was always ready to lend his support on Northern Ireland: ‘His use of a pause, his hand movements, the cadence of his voice, he was a remarkable communicator in so many ways.’

A favourite Campbell nostrum is that media experts are usually blind to their own shortcomings. When Peter Mandelson’s secret loan from Geoffrey Robinson came to light in December 1998, Mandelson was unable to see how his reputation could be harmed by the news that he owed £300,000 to a colleague whose offshore trusts were being investigated by the DTI, Mandelson’s own department.

Blair forced his old friend to resign but as soon as the terminal phone-call was over he started to fret about his personal image. Would he seem too ruthless? Campbell thought not. Blair relaxed ‘and then he did his jokey northern accent bit. “Right you are, Ali, what a triumph, eh?”’

The blind-spot theory fits Campbell himself. He makes no effort to amend his public profile and the Campbell figure of popular myth — the aggressive foul-mouthed hooligan — is affirmed by his own evidence. He swears constantly (as does Blair) and he explicitly refers to his attacks on news editors as ‘bullying’. Yet towards the close of the diary, when he tours a potential school for his son, he admits he’s unimpressed. ‘Far too much bad language around.’

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