Political diaries have one characteristic in common. According to their authors, they are written not to enhance the narrator's fame or bank balance, but as a contribution to what Alastair Campbell, in the introduction to Prelude to Power, calls "history". This explanation is the diarist's equivalent of "the trickle-down effect" - a conscience-easing, but wholly bogus, justification for making money at other people's expense.
No one should doubt that the price of any "revelatory" diary is paid by the men and women whose private conversations, having been recorded without their knowledge, are published without their permission. That is as true of works of substance and significance, such as Bernard Donoughue's diaries, as it is of trivial gossip of the Blunkett variety. In Prelude to Power, nobody escapes. Campbell's revelations, like the gentle dew from heaven, fall on just and unjust alike with a capriciousness that gives each entry a true feeling of immediacy. Margaret Beckett is first denounced for the inadequacy of a health service policy statement that she constructed, and then applauded for the determination with which she defended the document that Campbell thought lacked substance. One of the attractions of this diary is the impression it gives of reflecting the (often ugly) mood of the moment.
Readers will decide for themselves if Campbell is to be praised or blamed for exposing, with equal enthusiasm, the failings and foibles of both friends and enemies. Disloyal he may be, but he is innocent of the diarist's greatest sin: the settling of old scores. Even Tony Blair, in general the recipient of the author's almost bobby-soxing admiration, will discover how irritated his press secretary became by the way in which he vacillated over important decisions, was easily influenced by plausible acquaintances, or failed to follow the rigorous route to victory that Campbell had charted.
One of the most interesting entries describes the then leader of the opposition's reaction to Cardinal Thomas Winning's allegation that his refusal to condemn abortion "meant his Christian faith was a sham". When Campbell discovered that the Sunday Telegraph was going to give the story prominence, he arranged for Blair to speak to Matthew d'Ancona, who was writing the anticipated article. The result was the headline "Blair - I am against abortion", and a response from Campbell that seems, in tone if not in content, more that of an exasperated father to an irresponsible child than of a press secretary to a man who, even at the time, he constantly called the future prime minister:
Another mistake. I should have known that once he got to another big God man he would present himself as basically anti-abortion which, deep down inside, he probably was.
Campbell's iconoclasm is one of the diary's redeeming features and his frequent confessions of impatience with Blair's perceived defects should be borne in mind when reviewers dwell - as they will - on the passages that describe his reservations about Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown and John Prescott. He appears to have lived in a permanent state of irritation, punctuated with exhaustion-induced self-pity. Better that, however, than the chronic hysteria which apparently infected all around him: John complained about Peter, Gordon complained about John, Peter complained about Gordon and they all complained about Harriet. Unless A Prelude to Power is a gross distortion of how the government-in-waiting behaved, it is hard to understand how such a bunch of squabbling neurotics managed to win a general election. The most plausible explanation is that winning was all that really interested them, even though Campbell excoriates Ben Pimlott for saying so at the time.
Winning clearly was all. The diary reveals both the author's lack of interest in policy and, more important, his beliefs that presentation should be the first consideration and that policy should be adjusted to meet that primary requirement. Hardly a word about the merits of any decision taken appears in more than 700 pages. Campbell's comments are all about the ways in which various initiatives were reported by the media, received by the Parliamentary Labour Party and rebutted, or not, by the Conservatives. He encourages Blair to say more about the minimum wage, not because this is right and necessary, but because it is "hugely popular".
It could be said in Campbell's defence that his area of responsibility was the press, not the programme. But who doubts that his obsession with the media was shared by Tony Blair, the first of Britain's celebrity prime ministers? Campbell will argue that this preoccupation won Labour the 1997 election. However, it also caused many of the failures of the government that followed.
The one aspect of policy that is dealt with in some detail is Campbell's attempt to impose discipline on those wayward members of the shadow cabinet who broke ranks and speculated about the programme of the anticipated Labour government. Prescott was a regular offender. But the greatest crisis followed the decision by Mandelson (of all people) and Roger Liddle (a Social Democrat defector who had defected back to Labour) to publish a book called The Blair Revolution.
The two putative authors were accused of what Stalinists would have called "deviationism". After much anguish (a story anticipating the book's apostasy appeared in the Guardian and had to be refuted by the miscreants), a sanitised version was eventually published in 1996. As I recall, it took the form of an imaginary conversation between a young couple, and should have been banned, not because it was unauthorised, but because it was ridiculous. A poignant entry by Campbell records Mandelson's complaint that Blair did not attend the book launch.
For all the absurdities and inadequacies exposed here, it has to be said that Prelude to Power leaves the reader in no doubt about the brilliance with which Campbell shepherded Labour to victory. That is not because he says so himself: he clearly has a high regard for his own capabilities, but has the sense to let his achievements speak for themselves. It is clear, from what I accept are the actual words that he wrote 14 years ago, that he always wanted to take the fight to the enemy, usually advocated the bold rather than the timid option, and was always bursting with creative ideas.
Often, his instincts about what those new ideas should have been were more progressive than the leader's. His diary displays an unremitting disapproval of Blair's reluctance fully to support comprehensive education. Yet that, in a way, makes his self-induced myopia about the dangers of the middle ground all the more reprehensible. On 17 May 1995, Campbell wrote that Stan Greenberg, the American pollster and strategist, lacked "a deep understanding of the difference between our policy and theirs". He does not even seem to have considered the possibility that the fault might lie in the policy, not Greenberg.
The Alastair Campbell Diaries: Prelude to Power - Volume I (1994-97)
Edited by Alastair Campbell and Bill Hagerty
Hutchinson, 784pp, £25
Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92