Peter Oborne

How Alastair Campbell betrayed Cherie

Peter Oborne says that the briefing against Cherie Blair from Downing Street has been persistent, lethal, unprecedented and utterly shocking - and he wonders where the Prime Minister stands in all this

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THERE is something eerie, and a little sinister, about the rise of the Campbell-Millars, as Alastair Campbell and his longstanding partner, Fiona Millar, are known in north London. Their rise started in the 1980s when they were young, unknown and ambitious. They ingratiated themselves with Neil and Glenys Kinnock: helping with the shopping and being on hand at a moment's notice. In due course, the Kinnocks and the Campbell-Millars went on holiday together, and were in and out of each other's houses. The friendship was helpful to Alastair Campbell's budding career as a journalist. His hotline to the leader of the opposition helped him become political editor of the Daily Mirror, the most powerful reporting job on the Left, at the early age of 32.

When Neil Kinnock quit the Labour leadership in 1992, the Campbell-Millars moved on. Neil Kinnock wanted Alastair Campbell to go with him to Brussels upon his appointment as European commissioner: he even went to the lengths of offering him the post of chef de cabinet. But the Campbell-Millars had by then gently dropped him. They had attached themselves to Tony and Cherie Blair. To begin with, Alastair made himself indispensable to the future Labour leader by helping with speeches, giving advice and writing laudatory profiles. The relationship was useful to Fiona's career as a freelance journalist. She became known within Fleet Street as the one person with ready access to Cherie Blair, then as now an unknown and fascinating commodity. After the election of Tony Blair as leader of the Labour party, Alastair accepted the job of press spokesman.

The Campbell-Millars are a post-democratic phenomenon. Now that the great age of mass democracy has passed, power has seeped away from elected politicians to their viziers. The prodigious rise of the Campbell-Millars has been achieved through the obscure and covert arts of the courtier. Complicity, charm, deference, ruthlessness, the elimination of rivals and, above all, the use of secret knowledge: these have been the weapons of the Campbell-Millars. There is something of Dirk Bogarde about Alastair Campbell: Dirk Bogarde in his great role in The Servant, who first pleases, then matches, then comes to dominate his master.

This is what has invested this week with such deep psychological fascination and boundless political significance: it was the moment that the servant turned on the master. Downing Street - read Alastair Campbell - has been briefing heavily and constantly against Cherie Blair. The biggest lie told by a Downing Street spokesman had nothing to do with Carole Caplin or her conman lover, Peter Foster. It was this, uttered by a Downing Street spokesman on 8 December: 'Anybody who has been following this story will know both Fiona and Alastair have been totally supportive of Mrs Blair and the Prime Minister.'

In fact, the exact opposite was the case. The Campbell-Millars decided very early on that Cherie Blair must be turned into the victim of the Peter Foster business, and take the blame for the numerous lies uttered by Downing Street to the press. They have wasted few opportunities to blacken her name. The briefing against Cherie Blair from Downing Street has been persistent, lethal, unprecedented and utterly shocking.

It is doubtless the case that Mrs Blair was guilty of bad judgment and perhaps of mendacity. But what is especially disturbing is that Downing Street did not seek to protect her reputation. Instead, it set out quite deliberately to diminish it. On Tuesday Downing Street accused the press of a campaign of character assassination against Cherie Blair. It was half right. There is a campaign of character assassination; but it comes from within Downing Street. The media operation was all about sustaining the purity of the Prime Minister, salvaging the reputation of the Campbell-Millars, and trashing Cherie Blair. Some figures close to the Prime Minister feel that this was the wrong way round. They argue that the Campbell-Millars owe their very great importance and influence only to the patronage of the Prime Minister. They argue that it would have been proper if, in return, the Campbell-Millars had protected the Blairs when they were in trouble. As it was, there was a stream of sadism and vindictiveness in the Downing Street briefing against Cherie Blair, as demonstrated by the decision to leak details of her humiliation late at night on Wednesday 4 December. This was the evening when the Daily Mail told Downing Street that it possessed emails between Cherie Blair and Peter Foster which demonstrated that government spokesmen had been telling a lie when they insisted that Foster had played no role in the purchase of the Blairs' two Bristol flats.

As luck would have it, the Blairs were out in the West End, watching Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in David Hare's play The Breath of Life. They were impossible to reach. Back in Downing Street the Campbell-Millars convened a council of war. This is how Francis Elliott and Colin Brown of the Sunday Telegraph described what followed: 'When the couple finally arrived back at No. 10 after one o'clock, they were met by an angry Ms Millar, brandishing the first edition of the Daily Mail ...[Cherie Blair] was asked to log on to her personal email account so that Downing Street aides could scrutinise what, exactly, had passed between her and the conman. As Mrs Blair accessed her account from a computer in the press office, Alastair Campbell and others crowded around to view the evidence.