The Spectator

What matters in the Campbell diaries

What matters in the Campbell diaries
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If you can’t be bothered ploughing through the Campbell memoirs, BBC2 has done a superb job filleting it. I’ve just had a preview of the three-part documentary starting on Wednesday – complete with his bleeped-out expletives and thoughts on everything from homicide to suicide. Fittingly, it’s from the same production company that did Grumpy Old Men.

He reads from his diary, while a narrator and news clips take up the rest of the story. There are lots of shots of Campbell jogging, writing on his desk and staring out the window as if mulling world domination. It’s certainly his side of the story, and doesn’t pretend to be a balanced history. Yet for those who consider Campbell a villain, there’s plenty ammo to make you say ‘Ha! I always suspected as much.” Here are my favourite extracts…

Campbell’s fears that he may be mentally unable to be Blair’s spin doctor 

“I had a serious psychotic breakdown in 1986 and worried that the pressures of the job he was offering would lead me down some dark and dangerous alleyways. My partner Fiona, my parents and my friends [including Neil Kinnock] pleaded with me not to do it. They feared it would take over my life, that I would end up loathing the media.”

Campbell's doctor warns about his anger just months into the job.

"He [the doctor] said, three times in my medical history I've had major upheavals because I ignored the signals when they first came. Acute asthma, nervous breakdown, a serious stomach complaint - he felt all three were connected to anger. "You spend a lot of time taking seriously people you despise" [said the doctor]. "You wouldn't be human if it didn't make you angry."

Hawkish Campbell is baffled by Clinton’s reluctance over Bosnia.

We couldn’t understand how Clinton, the ultimate emphatic politician, didn’t seem to ‘get’ this in the same way that we did."

 Clinton screams at Blair for leaking stories about Washington’s reluctance.

Clinton and Blair “had spoken for over an hour, the first ten minutes with Bill in a total rage. He said he knew what was going on and it had to stop. He said it t may play well with the UK public, but there is ‘a price to pay - and you will pay it’. Tony said Clinton’s outburst was real, red-hot anger”

 Blair’s “pleasure and horror” when Cherie became pregnant with Leo.

“’Cherie might be pregnant’,” he said. I laughed out loud. “Nobody can complain that you don’t make news,” I said. He said he felt a mix of pleasure and horror. ‘Thank God I’m a Christian,” he said. “It allows me to assume there must be a reason – even if I can’t work it out.’”

Blair’s fatalism ahead of the 2001 election – Campbell puts it down to God

Blair felt “an almost palpable feeling of a gulf opening between government and country… He had resigned himself to the idea that if we lost, we lost and it wasn’t the end of the world. He had clearly been chatting to his Maker again.”

Campbell thought about quitting at the end of the first term.

"I told Tony I was feeling tired and demotivated. I no longer felt on top form, and wasn’t sure I’d recover. He promised we’d be strengthened by the second mandate. Fiona and I had a fight in the car on the way home because it was obvious I was going to stay."

Campbell threatens to quit over Carole Caplin

Campbell said to Blair: “’You married a woman who is determined to protect and keep a woman who is in love with a conman. So you are linked to a conman’. He shouted at me down the line “I am not linked to a conman.” I said ‘You are. And until Cherie dumps Carole, or Carole dumps Foster, or preferably both, that’s the way it is.’ Tony was having none of it. “You think Cherie has done something monstrous, and I don’t”… “Fine, I said. But if this goes on much longer, I’m off. Out of here. Goodbye.”

On how his partner Fiona threatened to leave him if he didn’t quit

“During the early days of the Iraq war: “Tony asked me how things were at home. I felt that unless I had an exit date, I had no marriage. He said he was saddened, but wouldn’t pressure me to stay."

Jokes about shooting Clare Short during Cabinet.

“War Cabinet. Clare Short rabbiting on more than ever. I slipped Tony a note about the time Saddam shot his health minister at a meeting because he was annoying him and did he want me to get a gun? ‘Yes’, he scribbled.” 

 Asks whether he may commit suicide.

Lord Hutton asked to see Campbell’s diaries when he was on holiday in France. He want back to London to prepare, and was aghast at what he might find. “As I left the house and said goodbye to Fiona I did actually wonder momentarily if it would be the last time I saw her. Whether what I discovered on reading my own diary would be so awful that I might top myself.”

Campbell went for Gilligan as his last mission

He doesn’t say as much, but his diary shows he decided to quit on reading Gilligan’s Mail on Sunday piece. “It was definitely time to get out,” he writes. So Gilligan would be his last hit. All the way through with Gilligan, we can see (though it is never pointed out) how Blair and Campbell exaggerated the BBC claim, then denied the exaggerated claim. It’s a trademark Blair/Campbell tactic, which they deployed all the way though.

My Conclusion

Campbell purged his diary of any seriously damaging material. I suspect it will have about a fifth of the impact of Andrew Rawnsley’s peerless Servants of the People. But it does add colour, perspective and drama into familiar events and gives a better insight into the strain of the Blair years. The documentary vividly shows Campbell as a brilliant yet flawed man – pretty much as described in Peter Oborne’s biography. If I were Peter, I’d be feeling rather pleased with myself. He scooped Campbell on the story of his own life by about eight years.

On the Today programme this morning, Campbell said he never lied. John Humphrys then proceeded to list some apparent lies (exposed by Lance Price.) “Well, a lie – to me – is…” Campbell replied said – and went to moan about Gilligan again.

This is exactly it. Campbell lived in a world where truth and lies were relative, and he stretched the truth until the elastic finally snapped. And when it did, over an issue of life and death like the Iraq war, it badly rebounded on Campbell, Blair and Labour. The BBC documentary doesn’t make this point. But for all the inevitable one-sidedness of the narrative, the viewer is still able to make their own judgement. A series, destined for Iain Dale’s list. So don’t miss it.

The Alastair Campbell Diaries: BBC Two 8pm on Wednesday, 8pm Thursday and 7pm Friday.