Poison pen

Alastair Campbell: New Labour and the Art of Media Management

Peter Oborne <em>Aurum Press, 230pp,

When Peter Oborne, whom I like despite his politics, told me he planned to write a book about Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, I burst out laughing: "Who on earth wants to read a book about him?" I asked.

The answer to that question is obvious. Virtually nobody will ever read this book except media studies students and a small rarefied circle in Westminster; and like most political books these days I suspect it was written only because some newspaper was willing to spend thousands of pounds on the serialisation. Paul Routledge lost £100,000 in serialisation rights when someone burgled a copy of his Mandelson biography and leaked the best bit to a rival newspaper. At least he had a story worth telling. I am not sure that Oborne has.

I confess that, before reading this book, I had already seen the serialisation of it in Oborne's own newspaper, the Express. It was immediately apparent then that anything remotely sensational or damaging to Campbell would be left out. Which reminds us of how, when Routledge was appointed that paper's political editor by Rosie Boycott, a horrified No 10 leant on their friends who own the Express to block his appointment.

In the Express serialisation we learnt that Alastair reads his early-morning press summary in the bath, and that he is close at hand wherever Tony Blair goes. Wow! By the time I actually received my copy of the book I must confess I no longer wanted to read it. The problem Oborne faced was that, in order to justify writing a book on Campbell, he necessarily exaggerated his importance. So we are told, boldly, that Campbell is the second most powerful man in Britain, that he won both the general election and the Kosovo war. Complete bollocks, of course - or, as Campbell himself would say, "crap". The only surprising thing is that he isn't also credited with engineering the present economic upturn and the decision to make the Bank of England independent.

I have never understood why journalists seek to exaggerate the power of spin-doctors. Perhaps it arises from the pangs of guilt they feel from having so often slavishly followed the party line; or perhaps it's just a natural obsession with anything to do with the media. A few months after I finished working as press secretary to Gordon Brown, journalists were telling me how much he would flounder without my assistance. I told them then that the only thing that mattered was the performance of the economy. Nine months on, the economy is doing well and Gordon is rightly receiving plaudits from the same halfwits who had predicted economic disaster just 12 months before. Now these so-called political pundits write that Gordon is doing better because I have gone.

The chapter dealing with Campbell's relations with Brown was not serialised in the Express, and it's easy to see why: Campbell is fingered by Oborne for "the most blatant and outrageous briefings against the Chancellor". I was amused to read that Campbell kept a "capacious file of Whelan-related cuttings", but I doubt if Gordon will be amused to read that. There can be no question, however, "that the monster operation to smear Gordon Brown was sanctioned by Alastair Campbell" or that "Tony Blair held Campbell responsible for the vicious and personal attack on the Chancellor". All this, remember, was because of a book written about Gordon Brown by Paul Routledge. And Oborne puts the blame for the briefing war that followed where it belongs: firmly at the door of No 10. Far better if Downing Street had just laughed off the Routledge book instead.

Peter Oborne is one of Britain's finest political writers and he's made a very boring subject quite a good read, even if some of his political judgements are off beam. For example, he refers to Mandelson as a "brave" politician, and someone somehow has conned him into believing that Campbell was in tears when Mandelson was forced to resign - unless, of course, he means tears of joy. My favourite sentence also concerns Mandelson's forced resignation: "New Labour's inner circle must have spent Christmas in rather the same spirit as an apocalyptic sect awaiting the end of the world on a mountain top." The irony was that I was on a mountain top in Scotland: except that, like most Labour Party members, I was not mourning Mandelson's departure.

Oborne has proved that he can write a book. I only hope that his next biography is about someone more interesting, someone who doesn't go around telling female journalists not to wet their knickers or threatening people that he will knock their heads off. I'm told that another Alastair Campbell biography is on the way. Someone else will have to review it. I never want to read another word about him - and, if Campbell values his job, he probably doesn't, either.