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What's eating Campbell

Alastair Campbell is back as Labour's most feared communicator and strategic adviser. He talks to Ja

On 12 October, as the BBC broadcast a documentary about his breakdown and subsequent depression, Alastair Campbell was in Australia. The film was moving - Campbell confessed he still suffers from bouts of depression - but for hardened political observers it revealed little about his present position on the Gordon Brown government and, more generally, on domestic politics. It is known that Campbell is once again working behind the scenes for the Prime Minister, preparing to help out at the general election.

He remains fiercely loyal to the leadership of a party he has promoted for decades, first as a journalist and then as Tony Blair's director of communications. But Campbell is an obsessive, as he acknowledged in the documentary. Once back in politics, as he now is, will he be able to stop himself from becoming fully consumed? And how much work is he really doing for Gordon Brown?

Now Campbell, who resigned from No 10 in August 2003, has broken his silence on British politics. Speaking to the New Statesman on his return to Britain from Australia, he said that he unambiguously supported the PM.

"I believe passionately that the Labour Party still has the right values for today and the right agenda," Campbell says. "I cannot stand the sight of the Tories getting smugger and smugger, thinking they can waltz back into power when they have done nothing to deserve it. I have a lot of other things going on that I do not intend to give up, like writing, fundraising for leukaemia research and working with other individuals and organisations. But I will help as much as I can within those limits."

He also argues that the Labour Party at every level - cabinet, government ministers, MPs, party chairs, activists and supporters - has to do a better job of taking the fight to the Tories. "With modern politics surrounded by so much cynicism, mainly but not entirely media-driven, the only effective communications is authenticity. We are now seeing the authentic Gordon Brown - the serious man for serious times, the man who understands the world economy and can build the world alliances. And we are seeing the authentic Cameron - good at spin, crap on substance; good at pictures, crap on policy. He's not up to it on the stuff that really matters."

(The New Statesman has separately learned that Tony Blair is also "thoroughly unconvinced" that Cameron "has what it takes" to be prime minister. Contrary to some reports that Blair privately admires the Tory leader, and even secretly wants him to win the next election, Blair believes that now is the time to rally in support of the "superior" Brown, as was demonstrated by his endorsement of Peter Mandelson's return to the cabinet as Business Secretary.)

Campbell was in Australia for a week-long tour of public speaking, book promotion and fund raising with a fellow leukaemia campaigner, the former Australian cricketer Justin Langer. One of the speeches he made, in Canberra, was to an audience of advisers and supporters of the Australian Labor government, led by an ally of Brown's, Kevin Rudd. At another speech in Sydney, he outlined his support for the British Prime Minister.

Campbell described the recent financial crash as "the economic equivalent of September 11, in that a variety of factors that people in government have known of and worried about for some time have come together suddenly and with devastating effect". Although he frequently condemns the British media for overhyping stories, Campbell said that, "for once, the present world financial crisis is not an exaggeration. The factors causing it are global, the consequences are global and the response will have to be global. The world is looking to those leaders who step up to the mark. Just as Tony Blair was, for me, the one who stepped up to the mark over Northern Ireland, over Kosovo, and when a global response was required following the attacks on the twin towers, so Gordon Brown is the one stepping up to the mark now."

He said the Prime Minister is filling a "vacuum" of world power. "Partly because so much of this crisis was made in America, partly because George Bush is nearing the end of his time, partly because the presidential campaign is reaching its climax, there has been something of a vacuum in the US leadership. I believe Gordon and the British Labour government have shown real leadership and helped to fill it."

Campbell believes the financial crisis is what Brown "is made for". Speaking at Old Parliament House in Canberra, he said: "Gordon looks to me like a round peg in a round hole dealing with this. Big issues, big challenges requiring global responses. He does not minimise the significance of what has happened. His explanations have been clear. His analysis has been sharper than that of others. The decisions he and the government have made have shown understanding and bold leadership."

Coming soon after Campbell's role in the launch of the Go Fourth campaign, set up to steer the Labour Party towards fighting the Conser vatives, not each other, his latest series of in terventions will further cheer party leaders and activists anxious to harness his political and strategic skills.

Campbell praised Brown's decision to recall Peter Mandelson to the cabinet as evidence of his new-found bold leadership. "My initial reaction, like many people's, was surprise," he said. "But it makes sense on many levels. Peter was always a highly capable minister. He was always capable of making decisions and providing leadership to a department. He is widely respected in the business community. He is a big hitter at a time we need some big hitters around. And in his last job he has developed his understanding of the global economy."

Asked if he was going back into a full-time government or campaign role, Campbell suggested that the reports were overstated. "I have always been clear that I will do what I can to help Gordon and the party," he said. "I am passionate about Labour and about winning. Equally I have been clear that I do not want a full-time position. I did the 24-7 thing for a decade, including three elections, and it takes a lot out of you. I made a promise to my family I would not do anything like my old job. We have got our life back and I don't intend to lose it again."

In a scathing attack on the Tory leader, he said: "Cameron meanwhile is looking out of his depth. He has shown little understanding because when it comes to the serious stuff of economic policy debate he has shown little interest in the past three years. His focus has been almost entirely on the communications and the trivia. Riding his bike. Doing his silly webcasts from his kitchen. Going skiing with the huskies. Anything but making decisions on policy."

Just as Gordon is rising to the new challenges now, so the younger ones he brought on need to rise, too, all of them

Campbell said that the UK media had decided to give the Tories an easy ride. "Much more than here, the old class structures still have a certain hold in our country, I am afraid to say, and there is a lot of cap-doffing going on. With him as leader and Boris Johnson in the mayor's office - quite a lot of the highly paid people running the newspapers and broadcasts and filling the columns have no trouble with a bunch of Old Etonians running the country from White's.

"But it is the last thing Britain needs, not after all the progress we've made towards a truly meritocratic country. Cameron's speech at his conference showed that once you get [past] his youth and his cherubic looks, there is nothing much new Tory about him," Campbell said. "There was also a nastiness there that will have surprised a few people - all that rubbish about teachers refusing to put plasters on kids' knees and soldiers not being respected in their communities. What complete cock."

He said the Tories have been deliberately pursuing a strategy of avoiding policy debate and they have to be smoked out far more aggressively. "Just as the Americans have a right to know what McCain and Obama would do to handle this crisis, so Britain has a right to know what Cameron would do. His response so far has been all over the place. Problems created in and by markets give them a real headache and they have not been good at explaining it."

Asked about Labour's position in the opinion polls, Campbell said the Tories' lead was "shallow". "Obviously the polls have been bad for some time," he said. "But I think it is a shallow lead. I do not detect much positive enthusiasm for a return to the Tories under Cameron such as existed for us under Tony in '97."

He listed points on which Labour must be sharper: "Proper defence of the record of the government since '97; better communication of the overall strategy of the government policy agenda for the future; and stronger attacks on the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

"Elections are never about the past, but you need an understanding of the record as the first base of campaigning. You need to make sure the public have a proper sense of the forward agenda. And with the media not putting the Tories under real scrutiny, Labour will have to do it."

He also says it is never enough to rely solely on the leader. "Tony was without doubt the most important factor in our success but he needed his colleagues and his team to be strong, too. Politics is a team game. Of course there is massive focus on the leaders, and the media age has in some ways intensified that, but the public know they are electing a government. On the Tory side, apart from Cameron and Hague, the front bench are virtual unknowns. That is also part of their strategy."

Campbell thinks that Labour needs to bring on and develop more big hitters. "Look at all the people we could rely on when times got tough under Tony," he said. "Some have died, like Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and Mo Mowlam. But I could always look round and you had people like JP [the former deputy prime minister John Prescott], John Reid, David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn, Steve Byers, Helen Liddell, Patricia Hewitt and so on. Gordon was right to bring in lots of young blood when he took over. But he was also right to bring back Peter [Mandelson] and Margaret Beckett [as housing minister]. The younger ones need to be built up and brought on now."

In an attack on some of the more "hardcore" Brownites who were briefing against the Foreign Secretary at the Labour conference, Campbell was dismissive, contradicting rumours that he and Blair were disappointed by Miliband's performance. "There were a few people running around Manchester seeming to take pleasure in knocking David Miliband," he said. "What on earth is the point of that? It is bad politics. If people do their own side in, they should not be surprised if they start conceding a few own goals. It is good for the government and good for Gordon the more big hitters you have around the place. And just as Gordon is rising to the new challenges now, so the younger ones he brought on need to rise, too, all of them. At least David was out there with a strong forward message."

On claims that the elder Miliband brother is "finished", he said: "He should not be put off by the criticism he attracted and I know he won't be. He is a vital part of the government campaign to show new Labour is still the right party for the future, as well as the most successful political project of our past."

So why has it taken Campbell so long to "come out" publicly as a supporter of Gordon Brown's government? Why the long period of silence? Campbell merely says that he preferred helping behind the scenes and did not seek attention. "You assume I want to be in the newspapers, which I don't."

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama