The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries
Alastair Campbell Hutchinson, 816pp, £25
It says much about Alastair Campbell that since leaving Downing Street in 2003 he has not had a proper job. Downing Street gatekeeper Anji Hunter went off to BP to start a new career; even Peter Mandelson found diversion by becoming a European commissioner. Campbell could have gone off to become a spokesman for his friend Alex Ferguson, at Manchester United. He could have walked into many a top-paid post. But, no, apart from some laudable work for a cancer charity, he continues to obsess about the world of media-politics that he claims to so despise.
The first instalment of his diaries is a disappointment for political historians. It does, though, provide insights, however partial and selective, into the relationships within the revolutionary gang of four who made new Labour - Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Mandelson and Campbell himself. Although Campbell excised many of the most sensitive episodes, he paints a picture of men who are self-absorbed obsessives, who combine doses of narcissism, aggression, self-loathing, laddism and homoeroticism. Women generally occupy walk-on parts.
These men are agitated - by the press, the unions, foreign leaders, by the onset of middle age (Blair cannot cope with his receding hairline). The trauma of 18 years of opposition left its mark long after the great victory of 1997. Campbell portrays himself as an angry man, forever on the edge, apparently (although one should treat such assertions cautiously) contemplating suicide when told of the death of the government scientist, Dr David Kelly. The psychological flaws famously ascribed to Brown are evident in Campbell throughout this narrative - solipsistic but lacking in self-knowledge, the bully who sees himself as a victim.
The reader learns a little more about the spats around the euro, about the Bernie Ecclestone affair and other stories beside. But it is the long and tendentious passages about Iraq that are the most useful in assessing the man and his contribution to our public life. Campbell produces a few surprises, but his account most usefully confirms what we already knew. This was Blair at his most messianic, his advisers at their most reverential, his cabinet at its most supine.
Nowhere in the account - pre-, during or post-war - is there an attempt to analyse the theory of humanitarian interventionism or the subtleties of Middle East politics. Instead, this tale is reduced to tender anecdotes about George W Bush ("'If you win the vote in parliament, I'll kiss your ass'") and to Campbell's ravings about the BBC. Those who had reservations about the war are reduced to caricatures. Robin Cook is described as "pretty creepy"; Clare Short is disparaged throughout as a "totally ridiculous figure". As for Hans Blix: "You definitely got the impression that he was deliberately siding with France, attacking us and the US."
Campbell virtually ignores the controversy surrounding the Attorney General's legal advice. He expresses no view, no regret, nothing, about the eventual failure to find weapons of mass destruction, except describing the damage the news coverage is doing. This he says from 2 June 2003: "The main problem, of course, was that there were no WMD discoveries beyond the two labs, and no matter how much we said that there were other priorities now, the public were being told as a matter of fact that we had done wrong." Consider this remark. What does he mean by "there were other priorities now"? Something along the lines of: shame those weapons that formed the basis of war don't exist, but let's move on. The glibness takes the breath away.
Campbell appears to demolish his own defence during the Hutton inquiry and his attack on the BBC with a single entry. He describes a meeting on 6 September 2003 with John Scarlett and other members of the Joint Intelligence Committee as they prepared the original dossier for war. Campbell expressed his view to the civil servants and spy chiefs: "It had to be revelatory and we needed to show that it was new and informative and part of a bigger case." How different is that to Andrew Gilligan's charge of sexing up? The case against Campbell has been put forcefully over the past few years. I would have expected at least an attempt at a rebuttal. Instead he falls back on Hutton's exoneration-cum-whitewash. He fishes for sympathy by talking about the impact Kelly's death had on him and mixes that with aggression. When Blair urges him before his vital appearance at a parliamentary committee to "be calm and not get peevish", Campbell writes of his boss: "He lacked the killer instinct." An unfortunate phrase.
Elsewhere, the book contains some interesting mini-revelations about the war. I was struck by the extent to which Blair's people despaired of Bush's team even before the invasion had begun (the conventional wisdom is that the real problems began only with the botched reconstruction). I was also gripped by the passage surrounding Donald Rumsfeld's suggestion on the eve of war that the Americans could go it alone, without the Brits. Campbell recalls how David Manning, Blair's chief foreign policy adviser and the most level-headed man in the group, "said it made it virtually impossible to have a shared strategy with them [the Americans]". Again, without analysis, Campbell sees the issue in narrow news-management terms. "Hopeless. Yet another communications friendly fire. TB went bonkers about it." I was amused to see how nobody in the cabinet trusted John Reid. When Cook was working out his resignation statement with Campbell, he asked: "Could we agree a pact of no rubbishing on either side?" Campbell replied, "absolutely", to which Cook responded: "Can you ensure John Reid is part of that? The man can start a fight in a paper bag."
Perhaps the most revealing snippets concern Fiona Millar, Campbell's long-term partner, who spent years as Cherie Blair's personal minder. That relationship collapsed very publicly thanks to Cherie's infatuation with the lifestyle guru, Carole Caplin. Millar's anxieties over the war were an open secret, but Campbell now admits the role it played in her decision to quit Downing Street. On 19 March 2003, on the eve of war, he writes: "Fiona came to see me, said she couldn't stay in the job any longer. She said it wasn't the war per se, but it had been the last straw." Campbell says when he told Blair about this, the prime minister went into "'this is ridiculous' mode". Campbell recalls: "If she went and said it was about Iraq, that would look very odd for me because people would think that was my position too." Forget the rights and wrongs, this again boils down to news management. With his partner against, with most of his friends against, what did Campbell really, in his heart of hearts, think about the war? Or did he, like Cherie, see his role as standing by his man?
As ever with diaries, some of those named in the index emerge compromised, often inadvertently. In the midst of the Gilligan-Kelly saga, Campbell says he received a "nice letter" from Neil Kinnock "saying his favourite game at the moment was imagining how the BBC would have covered World War 2. 'Hitler would have lived to 1978.'" I would have credited Kinnock with greater intelligence. Then there is the comical figure of Nicholas Soames, Tory MP and long-time friend, who phones Campbell's Hampstead home and without realising he was talking to his son, Rory, declares: "'You sex god, you Adonis, you the greatest of all men' . . . Soames was totally supportive, said keep going, these people are total shits." Surprisingly, Campbell omits most references to his battles with journalists. Half a dozen or so are called "twats" or similar. One or two have the dubious distinction of rallying to his cause. He recalls that Rebekah Wade, editor of the Sun, sent him a "nice message" during the Gilligan furore, saying, "You've done nothing wrong, told the truth, more principles than these other people. Just hang in and don't give them the satisfaction."
Campbell has a fiercely loyal set of friends, mostly in politics, but some outside, too. He knows how and when to be charming. From Princess Diana (those bits were the first to be trailed in the weekend papers) to a Labour Party member in a working mens' club, he could make them feel good about themselves (and him).
This is a parable of a man who succumbed to his demons. Campbell is possessed of no little talent and no little charisma. He is a passionate man who still has much to contribute. He should first take anger management classes and then get himself a proper job.