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ony Blair’s right-hand T s a w l el pb m Ca ir a Alast rity of his eight jo a m e th ut ho ug ro man th Gareth Rees about to s lk ta He . er w po years in ing to win war, feuds, and play


pril 10, 1992. Thirty-fouryear-old Today journalist Alastair Campbell arrives with his wife Fiona Millar – also a journalist – at the London home of British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. The house should be empty, it’s owner on his way to the palace to accept the Queen’s invitation to become Prime Minister of Great Britain – the first Labour Prime Minister in more than a decade to hold the highest elected office in the land. Instead, Kinnock and his wife Glenys, downhearted and grieving for what could, and should, have been, answer the door. “The night after [the defeat], Fiona and I went around to see Neil and Glenys, and it was so sad, because they still had all the scaffolding from where the media had been the night before, and there were a couple of photographers – that was it,” Campbell recalls. “I think that was almost like a bereavement.” Yet just five years later, Campbell, now 38 and about to be named press secretar y to the soon-to-be Prime Minister Tony Blair, found himself in a room, standing beside fellow Blair cohort Jonathan Powell, watching in silence as his boss took a call from Conservative Prime Minister John Major. “Tony was dressed like a tramp. He had a ridiculous pair of slippers on, a rugby shirt and tracksuit bottoms,” Campbell says with a look of horror on his face. “Jonathan and I would normally mess about, no matter what was going on, but we were just totally still. Then Major comes on the line, and you do have this sense that ‘this is a moment in history’ – one Prime Minister is saying to another ‘you are the next Prime Minister, and I accept that. You’ve won. I’ve lost’.” Today, perched on a stool in the back of a noisy, generic café just off

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London’s Fleet Street – fittingly the former home of the British newspaper industry – the 55-year-old Campbell is dressed in a well-tailored blue suit and crisp white shirt – the successful media player’s uniform. At over six foot, but trim – he likes to swim, as his diaries will attest – he looks more like the captain of your local rugby side than a former king of spin. But, although a confident and imposing presence, he is a calm and charming character – perhaps the result of two years out of ‘the game’ – and it’s easy to see how he kept the British press ‘on side’ for so long. But prior to becoming the new Labour Party leader Tony Blair’s spokesman in 1994, Campbell had battled alcoholism and depression – an illness he has suffered from since and tackled in his book The Happy Depressive – and was by no means certain he wanted to enter the frenetic world of politics. “There’s nothing like it,” says Campbell. “That’s why it took so long to think about it. I had these two images coming into my head all the time. One was of Tony Blair going into Downing Street and me down behind the fence with all the other journalists covering it, thinking ‘I could have been part of it’, and the other one was John Major going back in, and I’m thinking ‘I could have stopped that’.” That “moment in history” in Tony Blair’s office, then, is one that Campbell could easily have missed. So why, knowing how tough it would be on both him and his family, did he agree to work for the demanding Blair? A man who he knew would come to rely on him heavily in the years ahead. “A real, deep desire to see the back of the Tories and get Labour in, and also that sense that… Something about Tony as well,” he muses. “Going to work for him – the idea definitely had

something that drew me to it.” Campbell goes on to say that the death of John Smith, Tony Blair’s predecessor as leader of the Labour Party, in 1994 was the defining moment in his life. “At that moment, I sensed that Tony would be the next leader, and that I would work for him,” he says. Tony Blair has also talked about this “sense” that he was the right person to lead Labour to victory over

Tony was ike a dressed l eartramp, w of ing a pair nd slippers a tracksuit bottoms

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John Major’s Conservatives and end his party’s years in the political wilderness. It’s a strange term to use, and it plays in to the argument put forward by critics of what Campbell later helped to rebrand the “New Labour” project that Blair saw himself as a messianic saviour, a champion destined to lead his part y and his country. But the idea that choosing a leader should be based on a feeling, a “sense”, rather than simply ideas, is also a distinctly modern one, argues Campbell. What a person or a political party stands for, the ideas and the policies, are paramount – in Blair’s case modernisation of a party still linked to the old socialist rhetoric of class struggle – but the modern voter doesn’t elect ideas, he elects people. “I attended a conference recently and somebody presented this piece of research,” explains Campbell. “This group of people in America had been showed 100 pairs of pictures; the pictures were of two candidates who had stood in elections that had already happened, and they asked these people who they thought had won. They got something like 92 per cent right. Based on a photo.” A die-hard fan of Burnley Football Club, he admits that his support for Labour has always been tribal. He wanted his team to win. Victory was everything, and in 1994 Campbell saw the fresh-faced former lawyer Tony Blair as the party’s best hope of victory – his team’s star player, with the sort of face people might vote for. “I never felt compromised in my principles,” he says. “This is an ageold problem that tends to affect people on the left of politics, rather than the right, which is the idea that somehow there is something impure about the pursuit of power.” 82 uk power

For Campbell it is simple. Without power you can’t do anything, no matter what you believe. “Look at what’s going on now with the coalition government [the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance formed after the inconclusive 2010 election, which saw 13 years of Labour government come to an end], all the cuts they’re making, we can do nothing about it,” he continues. “They haven’t even got a majority, but they’re in power. And so we can oppose their

There is an idea on the left that there is something impure abo ut the pursuit of power

policies, we can shout and bawl, but unless we win an election, we can’t actually do anything about it.” The fact that the unelected Campbell was able to play such a key role in winning the 1997 election for Tony Blair and Labour and then help it hold on to that power for a further two elections (in 2001 and 2005) has been heavily criticised by some. Campbell’s defence starts off pretty weakly. He stumbles over his words slightly before claiming that any power he had was not his but Tony Blair’s. But he’s soon back on form. “Look, I don’t deny that I was in a senior position, I was part of the small number of people that he [Blair] totally trusted, and I had abilities that he respected, and that gives you, I don’t call it power, it gives you a position that allows you to make things happen, but I was always conscious of the fact that I was working to his agenda.” “All this thing about ‘the real Deputy Prime Minister’, it’s nonsense, because somebody like John Prescott, he was an elected MP and the elected deputy leader, and that gave him power that was independent of Tony. Gordon Brown had power independent of Tony. I didn’t. Any power I had was his power, not mine.” Whatever Tony Blair’s ‘agenda’ he was certainly never a tribal Labour suppor ter like Campbell. Despite Campbell’s claim that he and Blair shared a “similar analysis of politics, a very similar analysis of the party”, his boss’s obsession was to always occupy the hallowed ‘centre ground’ of politics. The only position from which to win. “It’s Tony’s strength,” says Campbell. “There’s a bit in the diaries where he says to me and [former Blair speechwriter] Peter Hyman, who’s a bit like me [a tribal Labour supporter], and he uk power 83

says, ‘the difference between you and me is I am not as Labour as you lot’. That was his strength in the end.” Campbell goes on to explain that Blair’s comments were an articulation of the fact Labour had to persuade people to vote for the party who had never voted for it before. The Labour Party’s 1997 election slogan “New Labour, New Life For Britain” sums up the winning strategy adopted by Blair, Campbell and fellow New Labour architect Peter Mandelson perfectly. It links right back to Campbell’s idea that elections are won not only with political

Part of what you learn is about teams, that people should have complimentary strengths

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ideas and argument but by creating a “sense” that the personalities involved can “do the job for the country” and, having criticised Britain’s current government for lacking “big characters”, Campbell lists the New Labour team like a coach rattling off a team sheet. “We had Tony, Gordon [Brown] – huge figures – JP [John Prescott], Robin [Cook], [David] Blunkett, Donald Dewar, Mo Mowlam, Margaret Beckett; and then the next lot come in, [Alan] Milburn, [Steven] Byers, [Charles] Clarke, [Patricia] Hewitt…”. “Part of what you learn is this thing about teams, about understanding that a good team of people… it doesn’t mean they are all going to go on holiday to-

gether, it doesn’t mean that they are going to go to each other’s weddings, it means that they have complimentary strengths that make up for each other’s weaknesses.” The internal conflict between Tony Blair, once he had become Prime Minister, and his Chancellor Gordon Brown is well documented, but reading Campbell’s diaries it is not just the power struggle between two men that stands out, it is the seemingly constant, and childish squabbling amongst the members of New Labour’s winning team. Tony Blair’s speechwriters, strategists and communications team – Jonathan Powell, David Miliband, Anji Hunter, Sally Morgan, Peter Hyman uk power 85

and Campbell himself – weren’t rivals, according to Campbell. But the star players, the politicians – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Robin Cook (“the big four”) and Peter Mandelson – were not quite so easy to handle. “It was very rare that all those relationships were good at the same time… sometimes it would be John, sometimes it would be Peter, Robin could be very, very tricky at times,” he explains, admitting that he often acted as a sort of minder. Then, of course, there was team New Labour’s star player – the Prime Minister himself. At one point in his diaries Campbell quotes Blair’s former mentor from his days as a pupil barrister and Lord Chancellor between 1997 and 2003, Derry Irvine, who had suggested that Blair, back in 1997, had started to believe he was invincible. Campbell says that Irvine was concerned about Blair’s “sense of his own rightness all the time”, but attributes this impression to Blair’s “outward confidence” and his sense that “ultimately the big decisions had to be taken by him.” In fact, Blair saw himself as anything but invincible, and Campbell betrays the former Prime Minister as a bit of a worrier in his diaries. “I think there were very few people who he kind of fretted with openly,” says Campbell, making it quite clear that he was one of those Blair did confide in. “Tony and I used to have this discussion about whether actually it was possible once you reached the level he was at to have new friends. I’m not sure. I’m not sure…” Blair’s reliance on Campbell often created a lot of pressure for the former spin doctor, but he says it was in Blair’s nature to expect a lot from his team – part of his successful management style. 86 UK POWER

“There are loads of times in the diaries where he phones up and says, ‘you’ve got to have a rest, you’re very tired’, then he gives you ten things to do,” recalls Campbell. “That could be infuriating but I’d do them because I’ve always had a slight workaholic tendency – I can’t see a problem without wanting to sort it…” The topic of sorting out problems leads nicely on to the Iraq War, the event that many would say ultimately proved the undoing of Tony Blair, if not the New Labour government, and the following question: if you have the power to end a dictatorship, do you have a responsibility to use that power? Campbell points to the fact that Britain never went to war with Robert Mugabe’s brutal Zimbabwean regime, because “there are a couple of nations that wouldn’t have tolerated it, including South Africa”, seemingly suggest-

ing that the answer is no – it depends entirely on circumstances. Before adding, “I think in relation to Iraq, there’s no doubt Tony had a sense of mission about that.” There it is again, that ‘sense’ that something is right, that conviction that something needs to be done and they, Tony Blair, Campbell and the winning New Labour team, were the ones who needed to do it. So what does it feel like now the power is gone, and Blair, Campbell and the Labour Party can no longer do anything? Even though he voted for David Milband in the leadership contest that followed the election defeat of 2010, which Miliband’s brother Ed won, Ca mpbell believes t hat t he party, and its new leader, has what it takes to win the next election in 2015 – even if he feels it needs to stop relying on old hands like himself.

I think in relation to Iraq there is no doubt that Tony had a sense of mission

“There was a moment in the last election campaign where there was something going on and I can remember being in the room and people were looking to me, to Peter Mandelson and to Philip Gould, and I was thinking there have got to be some young people coming through,” he says. “It’s taken a long time to get used to the idea of being in opposition. You see Ed Miliband, [current Shadow Chancellor] Ed Balls, these guys, they’ve only ever known a winning environment, really – they came in really in the mid-1990s.” From reading Campbell’s own account of his time in power – The Blair

Years and the four instalments of The Alastair Campbell Diaries currently in print – you are left with the sense that, having made the decision to work for Blair, power was not something he enjoyed at all. “If you ask me am I happy I did the job, the answer is yes,” says Campbell.

“Was I happy doing it? No.” For now, he seems happy to be out of politics. As he points out, he has written seven books in five years, blogs and t weets on a daily basis, gives speeches and lectures at schools and colleges and is involved with numerous charities. So would he ever go back? Maybe if his old friend and boss Tony Blair’s recent announcement that he was ready to “re-engage” with the British political debate turns out to be something more than just a juicy bone for the press to chew on? “It would depend. I’m not gagging for any job,” Campbell says. Only time will tell if his beloved Labour Party can regain power in 2015, and whether one of its most loyal supporters can be lured back to play for the winning team again. The Burden Of Power, the fourth volume of The Alastair Campbell Diaries, is out now UK POWER 87

The Winning Team  

Originally Published in the July 2012 issue of Open Skies.

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