At the end of last month, readers of the London Evening Standard were treated to a portrait of a tough, controversial but caring public figure, unjustly pitched into the media tempest but emerging calmer, stronger and freer to spend “loads more time” with the family, pick up his son from school and raise “quite a lot” of money for charity. “I suppose I just wanted to put something back in,” said Alastair Campbell, for it was he. “When my parents die, as long as they think I was a good son, as long as Fiona and the kids, when I die, think, oh he was good to have around . . . well, then I don’t care about anything else. I really don’t. Nothing else bothers me.”
Campbell’s mother, I’m sure, will always love him. It’s the rest of us he’s worried about. The week before the Standard piece, readers of the Times Saturday magazine were faced with a 2,000-word feature (this one written by Campbell himself) describing his A-list lunch at the Wolseley with Mel Brooks, Alan Yentob and the literary super-agent Ed Victor, complete with a picture of them sharing a power laugh in an alpha-male kinda way.
A few weeks before that, it was the Independent on Sunday, which carried a portrait of a tough, controversial but very vulnerable public figure, describing for readers his battles with clinical depression but emerging calmer, stronger, freer, etc. It was Campbell as you’d never seen him before, except in the Observer, the News of the World, the Guardian, Border TV’s Good Morning Cumbria, Colwyn Bay Hospital Radio . . .
Just in case you thought it was safe to come out from the cellar, future output from the Campbell word factory includes an article for Hello! magazine and unspecified “TV projects”. One of the delights of politics is the clunkiness of so many of its practitioners. Not for your retired spin-doctor the subtle brushstroke, the pianissimo pedal. If there’s a “message” to be delivered, only hard and often will do. You announce what you’re going to announce, then you announce it, and then you announce that you’ve announced it.
Campbell may have time on his hands, but he would not have made himself omnipresent in the papers if he were as indifferent to his image as he claims. The message is easy to decode. Viewers of Spitting Image may recall the show’s cruel Bob Monkhouse puppet, which spent much of its time pleading: “Like me. Oh, please like me!” But to adopt the argot of politics, can we, the public, deliver? Can we like Campbell?
Campbell’s account of his Wolseley lunch goes into detail about his famous Downing Street diaries. “I already had a steady flow of letters from publishers, agents and wannabes, but once the Hutton evidence day [where extracts were read out] had come and gone, the flow seemed to quicken,” he writes. Those diary extracts, you’ll remember, revealed how Campbell outed David Kelly to the media and put him on display to the world in his battle with the BBC – something Campbell had until that moment denied. It’s distasteful that he should now remember this shocking behaviour mainly as a money-spinner.
Campbell told the Sindy that Kelly’s suicide was a “nightmare” for him. It was perhaps rather more of a nightmare for Dr Kelly. Presenting the scientist’s death as the result of something that “just spiralled out of control” runs counter to the evidence of the diaries, which show his own hand controlling events throughout. It would be unfair to blame Campbell, or anyone else, for Kelly’s death. None of us could have realised that he was suicidal. No one emerged untarnished from that sordid affair. But what we learned from the evidence given to Hutton was the extraordinary place Campbell, this often angry and uncontrolled man, occupied in new Labour. By the summer of 2003, the famous Rory Bremner caricature of a Prime Minister plucking ineffectually at the spin-doctor’s sleeve had become true.
Blair, a better judge than Campbell, desperately tried to hold him back in his fight with the BBC. But the wishes of even the Prime Minister himself came second to dealing with a supposed slur on his spin-doctor’s integrity. Campbell administered the final coup-de-graceless with his notorious, gloating Carlton House Terrace appearance, ending all hope that the Hutton report could benefit the government and reminding everyone just how much the administration had been held hostage to his ego. All these, surely, were the real reasons why Campbell had to go, and why it will be an awfully long way back.
I’m sometimes asked what I think of Alastair Campbell, and I usually reply that I feel just a little sorry for him. Having been caught up in the media hurricane myself, I understood for the first time how that kind of pressure could twist someone, bend them out of shape. I had it for six months, not long enough to do permanent damage; Campbell lived under it for nearly ten years.
The website of Campbell’s new employer, Hello! magazine, promises “news and pictures from the world of celebrity, royalty and entertainment”. It’s not quite clear to which of those categories Campbell belongs: he used to be royalty, perhaps he is now entertainment. With something like 11 docu-dramas, films, plays or comedy shows portraying the great communicator, a Campbell will soon be as essential in the repertoire of every British male actor as, say, a Hamlet. While the other Hutton figures have been able to resume their lives, this 24/7 alpha male, once a foremost player at the heart of power, has not worked for three and a half years. As Downing Street contemporaries make their way in the worlds of grown-up employment – Anji Hunter is now a senior figure at BP – Campbell still appears to define himself by his time in new Labour, and has told friends he regrets not obtaining a proper job.
The guru and family guy
He claims to have “given up reading the papers” or watching the news. And yet he insists he still gives “regular political advice” to Blair and popped up at this year’s Labour conference. Stories crediting Campbell with writing the best joke in Blair’s speech somehow appeared in all media outlets. Campbell’s touchingly transparent wish is to have it both ways – to be seen as the normal family guy who’s left the hysteria of politics behind, but also still to be seen as Tony’s guru behind the scenes. Campbell has always cultivated an image of macho indifference, while secretly being desperate to get the credit for his own part in events. Credulous new Labour journalists occasionally write about how he has “brokered agreements” (on the succession to Blair, for instance) between people who, we know for a fact, would not trust him.
Most Downing Street press secretaries are sensibly low-key, self-effacing figures; Campbell never was. After he joined Blair in 1994, he had to be ordered to give up guesting on television programmes; he invited the documentary-maker Michael Cockerell to film him inside No 10, with disastrous results; his current media offensive shows a continuing need to be noticed, to matter. The ostensible purpose of Campbell’s interviews now is to publicise the work of Leukaemia Research. His role in raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for the charity is admirable. But he has made quite sure that we all know about it.
Remember the old question: if a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear it, does it make a sound? New Labour spin-doctors have long believed that if a good deed goes unreported, it’s as if it never really happened.
I don’t wish Campbell long-term ill; I think both he and the government have been adequately punished for what they did. But I do believe that his latest PR offensive will fail. Thanks partly to Campbell’s activities in No 10, he and new Labour have moved into the realms of actual anti-credibility; the public increasingly believes the opposite of whatever they say. He would do better to stop trying, and let time take its course. But just like that other fallen member of the Royal College of Spin, Peter Mandelson, his political judgement has been excellent on most things – except himself.