Now he must spin for himself

Kevin Maguire explores Alastair Campbell's bag of tricks and asks if the PM's press aide, long in th

At the end of 1,200 words in the Scotsman on Tony Blair's problems and Alastair Campbell's part in creating and solving them, the paper's then political editor disclosed that the Prime Minister's spin-doctor devoured every word written about him and was certain to read even his own final paragraph. The day the piece appeared, Campbell sought out the author after the regular 11am lobby briefing in Downing Street, winked, boasted: "I did it" - then strolled off with a broad grin.

Campbell spends much of his time in the shadows. But he enjoys the limelight and happily supplies details to the public prints - off the record, of course - charting his personal successes, whether it be a "job offer" from an admiring Bill Clinton or an account of how he helped to win the war in Kosovo.

On the world stage, he is not content to stand in the background or hover over Blair's left shoulder. Rather, he pops up, Zelig-like, in places previous No 10 spokespeople would not have dared to tread. Was that Campbell at the front of a line of British diplomats, shaking the hand of the Chinese premier in Tiananmen Square? Was that Campbell bowing his head alongside Prince Charles when mourners filed past the coffin of King Hussein of Jordan?

Campbell, however, is now threatened with overexposure - and this will have lasting implications for both himself and the government. Since the election, he has repeatedly urged ministers to steer clear of biographers, warning that reputations are damaged, not improved, by the attentions of chroniclers. Yet, over the next month, he faces the full glare of not one but two spotlights, as rival warts-and-all books are published.

In the red corner is On Message by the former political journalists Tom Condon and Eric Jacobs, who have been sharpening their knives to produce a very off-message biography. Serialisation began last weekend in the Mail on Sunday. The book claims that Campbell treats ministers with contempt and that he briefed Whitehall officials about which of them couldn't keep their trousers on. Shortly after the election, it reveals, he wrote a spoof Queen's Speech, which included a Substance (Lack of) Bill ridiculing Labour's lack of policies. It does not look such a joke two years on.

From the blue corner comes Alastair Campbell by the Tory toff and Express journalist Peter Oborne, who, while maintaining that his will be a balanced work, readily admits that the subject does not come out well. Serialisation is scheduled in the Express for around the time of the Labour Party conference - unless Campbell can persuade the paper's new Labour proprietor, Lord Hollick, to postpone it.

Campbell asked family, friends and his closest colleagues not to co-operate. At first he hinted that he might help Oborne, in the hope that his biography would be an antidote to the hostile Condon-Jacobs book. Then he sent his unofficial biographer a rude letter accusing him of passing himself off as an official chronicler.

The authors found a surprising number of people prepared to talk; less surprisingly, most insisted on anonymity. If it turns into another Whitehall mole-hunt, there is no shortage of suspects: sacked and slighted ministers, overlooked or ridiculed MPs, ignored special advisers, bitter party apparatchiks and the swollen, grudge-filled ranks of government information chiefs shown the door since Campbell started empire-building. As Oborne puts it: "Two years ago people were very protective of Campbell. Now he has made a lot of enemies."

Tales of how the bright vet's son spent his street-fighting years at Cambridge University, of his flirtation with soft porn, of bagpipe playing, of Burnley, boozing and breakdown may not be the stuff of a model new Labour CV, but they promise a right riveting read. Other episodes will prove more problematic: the bag-carrying for Maxwell on the Mirror; the cosying-up to Rupert Murdoch while on the now-defunct Today newspaper and then in opposition; his role in Blair's leadership coup, ensuring that the crown remained beyond Brown's despairing grasp.

The most potentially explosive period is from 2 May 1997. Campbell walked into Downing Street to become one of the half- dozen key figures in the government, wielding an influence most cabinet ministers can only dream of, bullying those same ministers and bossing mandarins to an unprecedented extent. (The one person who never laughs off the quip that Campbell is the true deputy prime minister is John Prescott.) Campbell's remarkably close friendship with Blair dates back more than a decade, and, as if to cement the family bond, Campbell's partner Fiona Millar works for Cherie Blair. As so often, it is the little things in life that reveal the depth of a relationship: who else would take sweets from the PM's packet without asking?

Campbell is engaging and exceptionally good at his job, spotting instinctively how to kill a story, as well as get one going. When the Bernie Ecclestone "cash for influence" story first broke, Campbell said that Labour should come clean and end the damaging speculation. Peter Mandelson's view - that it would all soon blow over - prevailed. After a week of "sleaze" headlines, Campbell finally got his way and Blair said sorry.

He is also adept at diversionary tactics. When Blair was exposed for lobbying the Italian premier, Romano Prodi, on behalf of Murdoch, Campbell marshalled the PM and a Labour MP behind a bizarre campaign to free Coronation Street's jailed Deirdre Rashid character. Deirdre was released early.

The most celebrated of recent Campbell rows concerned the BBC correspondent John Simpson and his reporting from Belgrade during the Kosovo crisis. When bitter criticism of Simpson's professionalism was attributed to a government insider, Campbell denied that he was responsible. He even sent Simpson notes of lobby meetings to prove his point. But it seems that no official notes were taken - and certainly none were sent to Simpson - when Campbell let rip in Brussels 48 hours before the anti-Simpson reports appeared. Spinning is not for boy scouts.

Yet overstepping the mark is an occupational hazard for an aide who has significant influence over policy - for instance, proportional representation for Westminster (he is against) and Europe (worried about the single currency). Campbell's biggest gaffe to date was his dig at Brown during the row over Paul Routledge's biography - when he stated that the Chancellor still felt cheated of the Labour leadership after John Smith died. The claim almost triggered a meltdown between the Blair and Brown camps. Campbell insists he never said it. But that misses the point: Brown believes he did, as do others. Didn't the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley meet both Blair and Campbell before revealing that "very senior sources" believed Brown suffered "psychological flaws"?

Blair's reliance on Campbell has been evident for some time. On that fateful Friday night in 1997 when a briefing to the Times about European policy badly backfired, Blair was at Chequers, desperately trying to get hold of Campbell to discover what his government's policy on the European single currency actually was.

The real danger for Campbell is that the books and the increased attention will leave him - however much he protests - personifying everything said to be wrong with this government: the centralisation of power, politicisation of the Civil Service, control-freakery, cronyism and the triumph of style over substance. If the spotlight is too bright, he will find it hard to operate in the shadows.

Of the quartet of Labour spinners who propelled Labour to power, only Campbell remains. David Hill, Labour's former chief press officer, is making big money in the private sector; Charlie Whelan, the former Brown spin-doctor, has become a media pundit; Peter Mandelson remains on the back benches. For Campbell, when things go wrong, as they did with the cabinet reshuffle that never was, there is no Whelan to blame any more. And like Whelan last Christmas, he is in danger of becoming the story.

Whatever he says publicly, Campbell will read both biographies and will in all probability get to the last paragraph of this piece. And he knows that the old showbiz saying that all publicity is good publicity is, as he would put it, total crap.

The writer is political editor of the "Mirror"

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