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Sunday 15 July 2007

A man hopeless at biting his tongue, except in his diaries

THERE was a time when Alastair Campbell - who for almost a decade was Tony Blair's eyes, ears, tongue and fists - was thought to be a genius (though his enemies always added the adjective 'evil').

This tabloid journalist and tribal Labour-supporter had made his reputation in the early 1990s, making John Major an object of ridicule to the pack animals of the press. He wrote of him as "simply a second-rate, shallow, lying little toad of a man", put about the lie that Major wore his shirt tucked inside his underpants and showed him nothing but contempt in public. "Oh, sod off, Prime Minister," he shouted at him once on a trip abroad, when Major had come to the back of the plane to chat with the press, "I'm trying to do my expenses." You won't find such discreditable stories in his sanitised diaries.

Blair's choice of Campbell as his Press Secretary in July 1994, shortly after his election as leader of the Labour Party, was taken in full knowledge of the kind of man he was dealing with. "I said [to Blair] 'I'm not sure I'm suited to it. I've got a big ego of my own and a ferocious temper. I can't stand fools and I don't suffer them. I'm hopeless at biting my tongue.' He said 'I've thought about that, but I still think you're right for it.' Nor was Blair worried that Campbell had had a psychotic breakdown in 1986 from a combination of stress and alcohol.

Blair was much less nice than he looked and needed others to do his dirty work. As he told the public years ago with trembling lip and moist eyes that he was "a pretty straight kind of guy", and thus extricated himself from a scandal about donations, he was being advised by a pretty twisted kind of guy of his own choosing.

Of course there were problems at court. In February 1995, Blair told Campbell that "he reckoned that in our own very different ways, GB [Gordon Brown], Peter M[andelson] and I were geniuses, the best in our fields at what we did, and the key to his strategy. But it drove him mad that we couldn't get on . . . he said when GB was motivated, he had a superb strategic mind and he would be brilliant come the election. Peter was brilliant at developing medium-term media strategy, and spotting trends and analysing how to react, and you are second to none at shaping message and driving it through the media. Fine, I said, but we are all flawed in our own way."

He never said a truer word. Take this account of himself and Mandelson arguing about what Blair should wear to meet young activists. "I was strongly of the view he should wear a shirt and tie, if not a suit. PM thought he should wear cords and an open-necked shirt and TB and he was continuing this conversation as we were trying to finish the wretched speech . . . I felt it was another instance of Peter winding TB up over total trivia. The speech was a priority. His shirt wasn't." The row continued with Mandelson claiming he'd been "rubbished and undermined" by Campbell until finally, he "pushed at me then threw a punch, then another. I grabbed his lapels to disable his arms and TB was by now moving in to separate us and PM just lunged at him, then looked back at me and shouted: 'I hate this. I'm going back to London.'"

Such rows were nothing compared to the horrendous TBGBs that scarred government and party until GB got TB pushed out, but since Campbell remains loyal to Labour, there's little about them in the diaries. Imagine Othello without Iago and you've got the general idea. The man who commissioned the "dodgy dossier" that misled politicians and public alike about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, has - in his own words - deliberately sexed down his own diary.

There was no doubt about Campbell's dedication and devotion and, in opposition, he turned around the media perception of Labour. The problems came with government and they are down to Blair, who made Campbell his closest confidant, gave him unprecedented power over civil servants and insisted he attend Cabinet meetings. Together, their ignorance of and contempt for British institutions and due process, combined with their obsession with the media, poisoned political life and undermined the competence of government and public respect for politics.

The saturnine Campbell is an obsessive: the type of recovered alcoholic described as a 'dry drunk'. Brilliant, fearless, bullying and utterly ruthless in the service of his master, he could be also be funny and charming. Within weeks of beginning his job with Blair, he was mesmerising the media. As Gibbon wrote of Attila the Hun: "They watched his nod; they trembled at his frown; and at the first signal of his will, they executed, without murmur or hesitation, his stern and absolute commands." And they remained cowed until they had been lied to too often and turned on him. For this, Campbell will never forgive them: after a decade in government, he says loftily, "it is my respect for the media that has shrunk, and my respect for politics that has grown."

The book will interest political anoraks, but it lacks any of the necessary qualities of a great diary. Campbell is partisan, cynical, tunnel-visioned, economical with the truth, has no hinterland and writes without distinction. But he is'He quickly spots the self-importance of Gerry Adams compared to the focused pragmatism of Martin McGuinness' not without insight. When it comes to Ireland, for instance, he quickly spots the self-importance of Gerry Adams compared to the focused pragmatism of Martin McGuinness, notes how David Trimble always seems to be arriving at Downing Street surrounded by party enemies, and realises early on that Mo Mowlam was biased towards republicans and had poor judgment and negotiating skills. She also provideshim with a startling anecdote from 1995.

"Dublin. Extraordinary start to the day. My bedroom and Mo's were joined by a bathroom so I knocked on the bathroom door before going in. 'Come in,' she shouted cheerily. I pushed open the door and there she wasin all her glory, lyingin the bath with nothingbut a big plastic hat on.I brushed my teeth, tryingnot to look in the mirror, where I could see Mo splashing around and decided to shave later. She seemed totally unbothered by myseeing her naked in a bath without suds."

Those close to Campbell had feared the job "wouldtake over my life, that Iwould end up loathing the media and getting angry at the share of the load Imight have to carry for politicians, who can be a difficult breed. They were right;right too that at times itput an almost intolerable strain on relationships at home. Yet for all that, even with all the Tory and media bile that came my way, I am glad I did it."

He is no fool, and he will know by now that he is regarded as having in the end damaged his master, his party and his government. We must hope that the million quid or so he's getting as a first instalment for his diaries will be some consolation for all he's suffered.

The Blair Years: extracts from the Alastair Campbell diaries. Edited by Alastair Campbell and Richard Stott, Hutchinson, €18.99

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards