Alastair Campbell -- overcome by emotion? Really?

It is difficult to take the former spin doctor's emotional outburst at face value.

Alastair Campbell showed his sensitive side on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show this morning, getting emotional as he denied that Tony Blair had misled parliament over claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Marr asked the former communications director to clarify his answer to the question put to him at the Chilcot inquiry: if the original evidence did not support the view that there was clear and unambiguous evidence that there were WMDs, did Tony Blair mislead parliament?

The notoriously bullish Campbell had to take a minute to compose himself, breathing deeply as if to hold back tears. "Tony Blair is a totally honourable man," he declared, his breath catching in his throat. He apologised for his emotional state. "I'm a bit upset at this constant vilification . . . I don't think people are interested in the truth any more, people are just interested in settling the score."

It was a strange tack for the man who has batted off sustained criticism for the past seven years, and who defiantly endured five hours of questioning at the Chilcot inquiry two weeks ago without so much as a dampening of the eyes. Given his intimate understanding of the media, it will be difficult for many to believe that this was a genuine, uncontrolled display of emotion.

We are familiar with anger from Campbell -- think of his impromptu appearance at the Channel 4 newsroom in 2003 -- but not this openness about his hurt feelings.

The Tory shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, another guest on the show, made an arch comment: "Many people are upset [about the Iraq war] in different ways, but that must not stop us from debating it."

It's a good point. When he had composed himself, Campbell took issue with the fact that the question was being asked, rather than answering it definitively:

I'm not saying it's not an important question . . . what I'm saying is that the reason people are going over it again and again is that those who disagree with the judgement Tony Blair made don't want to see the other side of the story.

Of course, it is entirely possible that what we saw this morning was genuine: Campbell probably is sick of being asked the same questions. But perhaps saying that he feels victimised is a tactic to close off debate, while showing the humanising "authenticity" that, as he pointed out, the public wants.

 

Evasion is the name of the game

Campbell was not the only one to be evasive. Hague was typically obfuscatory on the question of Lord Ashcroft's tax status.

He gave a very clear statement on Conservative policy -- that all peers will have to pay tax in the UK -- and said that it will not pose a problem for Ashcroft. However, his refusal to give an outright "yes" or "no" shows continued Tory discomfort with the deputy chairman's current tax status.

 

UPDATE (3.30pm):

Alastair Campbell has blogged on his appearance on the BBC this morning, saying that it is "frustrating" to be asked the same questions, and that Marr's agenda "was exposed in the way he casually threw in a highly disputed figure about casualties". He says:

So if I appeared lost for words, it was perhaps because there is nothing more to say, and if I had said what I was really thinking about the way the media [have] been covering the inquiry, and the way they cover public life more generally, I might have regretted it. So I let my mind race for a while, controlled the emotions surging around, then carried on.

. . . I do sometimes feel that people in public life are now treated by the media as though somehow they are devoid of humanity, do not have feelings, do not really care about anything.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference following an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron's EU concessions show that he wants to avoid an illegitimate victory

The Prime Minister is confident of winning but doesn't want the result to be open to challenge. 

Jeremy Corbyn's remarkable surge has distracted attention from what will be the biggest political event of the next 18 months: the EU referendum. But as the new political season begins, it is returning to prominence. In quick succession, two significant changes have been made to the vote, which must be held before the end of 2017 and which most expect next year.

When the Electoral Commission yesterday recommended that the question be changed from “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” ("Yes"/"No") to "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" ("Leave"/"Remain"), No.10 immediately gave way. The Commission had warned that "Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias." 

Today, the government will table amendments which reverse its previous refusal to impose a period of "purdah" during the referendum. This would have allowed government departments to continue to publish promotional material relating to the EU throughout the voting period. But after a rebellion by 27 Tory eurosceptics (only Labour's abstention prevented a defeat), ministers have agreed to impose neutrality (with some exemptions for essential business). No taxpayers' money will be spent on ads or mailshots that cast the EU in a positive light. The public accounts commitee had warned that the reverse position would "cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety" of the referendum.

Both changes, then, have one thing in common: David Cameron's desire for the result to be seen as legitimate and unquestionable. The Prime Minister is confident of winning the vote but recognises the danger that his opponents could frame this outcome as "rigged" or "stitched-up". By acceding to their demands, he has made it far harder for them to do so. More concessions are likely to follow. Cameron has yet to agree to allow Conservative ministers to campaign against EU membership (as Harold Wilson did in 1975). Most Tory MPs, however, expect him to do so. He will be mocked and derided as "weak" for doing so. But if the PM can secure a lasting settlement, one that is regarded as legitimate and definitive, it will be more than worth it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.