He may no longer occupy a position at the heart of government, but Alastair Campbell’s interest in the fraught machinations of British political life seems to burn as brightly today as it did at the very peak of his power and influence.
And what power. Having initially served as Tony Blair’s spokesman and then his chief press secretary, Campbell assumed the strategic role of Director of Communications in 2000 – cementing his position as Tony Blair’s de facto number two and one of the most dominant political figures in the land. Along with the formidable triumvirate of Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson, the 53-year-old is regarded as one of the architects of New Labour.
His uncompromising attitude towards disagreeable journalists and politicians who failed to toe the party line is legendary, as is his supposed penchant for profanities in the workplace. That Campbell’s passion for politics pours out of him is no surprise; nor is his defence of former boss Tony Blair, which remains decidedly robust. His reputation as a real life Malcolm Tucker notwithstanding, I found Alastair Campbell to be the antithesis of his alleged alter ego – affable, obliging, calm and considered.
In light of the ongoing crises in the Arab world, we begin (somewhat inevitably) by discussing the issue which has come to define the Blair government – Iraq. Having been heavily involved in the preparation of the ‘Iraq Dossier’, a document which highlighted significant cause for concern over Iraq’s supposedly extensive programme of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Campbell played a pivotal role in arguing the case for military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Whilst he clearly regrets the resultant loss of life, he stands by the decision to go to war.
“Taking part in the action to remove Saddam was the most controversial decision the Blair government took,” Campbell states unequivocally. He accepts that, “millions of people opposed it at the time and many continue to feel we did the wrong thing. I continue to believe we did the right thing, whilst recognising that the aftermath of Saddam’s fall was not well handled. But I still believe that region and the world are better places without Saddam and his sons in power. I also believe those who opposed what we did have at least to confront the fact that the world turned a blind eye to Saddam’s atrocities for too long.”
Yet many activists, academics, journalists and politicians – not to mention a majority of the general public – continue to believe that the decision to invade Iraq was at best wrong, and at worst illegal. The ongoing Chilcot Inquiry has served to re-ignite the debate over the veracity of evidence presented to Parliament in the months leading up to the invasion, whilst a recent edition of Question Time illuminated the huge gulf in opinion that remains between those for and against the war.
As the tension mounted between Campbell and former Labour MP George Galloway (one of the leading opponents of the war), Galloway proclaimed, “Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell are war criminals with blood on their hands,” suggesting that they along with George W. Bush should be tried for war crimes at The Hague.
Having described Galloway as “repulsive” in his memoirs, it seems that Campbell is thoroughly unconcerned by such aggressive accusations. “George Galloway can speak for himself”, he says dismissively. “He will always be remembered as the man who stood in front of Saddam and praised his courage, strength and indefatigability.”
In the end, Campbell admits, history will be the judge of whether or not invading Iraq was the right thing to do. “It will always be controversial, but it is certainly possible that people will look back on it as an important moment in the democratisation of the region. Given what is happening in Libya right now it is also worth reflecting that the reason Gaddafi gave up WMD – or one of them – was because he saw the seriousness of intent with regard to Saddam.”
We could talk endlessly about Iraq, but I am keen to hear what Campbell has to say about the politics of today. He continues to advise the Labour leadership unofficially and briefly returned to the political fold during last year’s general election in a bid to salvage victory from the jaws of the defeat. When it became clear in the aftermath that Labour might be able to stay in government by way of a ‘Lib-Lab’ coalition, Campbell was ever-present throughout the many strategy meetings and conference calls that ultimately sounded the death knell for Gordon Brown’s premiership.
“Gordon really believed we might win and inevitably was disappointed,” Campbell says of Labour’s widely-predicted demise at the polls last May. “It takes time for something as big as an election defeat to sink in but I am sure he will continue to make a contribution in different ways.”
Just as Brown is adjusting to the markedly slower pace of life on the backbenches, there is a new kid on the Labour Party block. Ed Miliband has been Labour leader for six months now and has been giving a rough ride by an unsympathetic press, who accuse him of being a lightweight figure without clear direction.
But, as you might expect, Campbell seems relatively impressed so far. “I like the fact he seems pretty unfazed by attack and criticism and I think he is really beginning to get under Cameron’s skin at PMQs. He has plenty of time to put together the policy agenda for the next election.” How could Miliband improve? “For the time being I would like to see more and deeper engagement in the economic argument”, Campbell suggests.
This is sound advice which Miliband would do well to take heed of – after all, Alastair Campbell is a man who truly understands the meaning of ‘engaging in the argument’. A much-publicised bust-up with Sky News anchor Adam Boulton just days after the general election became a YouTube hit as people clamoured to see the ignominious spectacle.
“He was just over-excited and totally lost the plot,” Campbell says of his adversary, who was the subject of much negative press as a result of the incident. “I may have needled him a bit but he was behaving like a total prat. One of the things I can’t stand about a lot of journalists is that they are good at giving it out but not to so good at taking it. I have seen him since and got on fine but I wouldn’t claim him to be a friend.”
If there is one thing Campbell relishes more than picking a fight with a fellow journalist, it’s taking the fight to the Tories – or, more specifically, the Tory-led coalition government. The role of the Liberal Democrats in supporting the near-trebling of the cap on tuition fees to £9,000 seems to have angered Campbell as much as any decision taken in recent times.
“Life was easy for the Lib Dems when they could go out and say whatever they liked to any audience they saw. Now they are propping up the Tory government their decisions have profound political consequences. Many people voted for them to stop a Tory government and they have ended up delivering just that.”
Will dismay amongst students who voted Liberal Democrat be reflected in a haemorrhaging of Lib Dem support amongst students next time around, in 2015? “Almost certainly – and so it should be”, he says defiantly.
“The fact is that raising the cap will deter people from going to university. I don’t think that bothers the Tories. They always scoffed at our goal of getting 50% of young people into higher and further education. I accept that we first brought in tuition fees and that was a difficult decision. It was all about trying to get more, bigger and better universities and more young people going to them. I fear that is now at risk.”
Campbell’s assessment of the coalition’s performance in other policy areas thus far is equally scathing. He suggests that, “they lack clarity of strategy. We know they want to reduce the deficit and we know they say they have to make cuts. We know next to nothing else. Big Society? Nobody has a clue what it means. Foreign policy? Ditto. Cameron is finally waking up to the organisational side you need but he still lacks clarity of strategy.”
“The Tories got away with murder during the Labour leadership election in blaming the previous government for all the difficult decisions they are taking. These are political choices they are making and they really need to be made to pay for them politically. David Cameron has the bonus of a tame media but once the cuts and sackings really start in earnest, he will find the temperature rising.”
A former tabloid hack himself, Campbell is taking a keen interest in the unfolding News of the World phone hacking scandal. He is almost certain that he was targeted.
“I was suspicious when Tessa Jowell and I fixed up a meeting using our mobiles only and a photographer was outside when it started,” he recalls. “Phone hacking is the least of what some papers get up to. I also think there is a danger in keeping all the focus on the News of the World… I would hope that eventually the net gets extended. It is interesting to see how few of the papers have really bothered with this story”, he notes wryly.
The former spin doctor remains a busy man with a hectic schedule. He is currently working on the third unexpurgated volume of his diaries, having seen the insightful second volume fly off the shelves in recent months. Power and the People chronicles the struggles, successes and frustrations of the early years of the Blair government – so, what could David Cameron learn from the diaries?
“That you need hard work, clear strategy and good organisation – and that even then a lot can go wrong.”
Volume 2 of Alastair Campbell’s diaries, Power and the People, is out now in hardback, published by Hutchinson, RRP £25.00. Volume 1, Prelude to Power, is out in paperback, published by Arrow, RRP £9.99.
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