Campbell cashes in his chips

THERE were always two sides to Alastair Campbell.

In less than a decade, 47-year-old Campbell rose from an alcohol-addicted national newspaper journalist to be the most trusted lieutenant of Tony Blair and a civil servant who was paid more than the Deputy Prime Minister. Some regarded him as the real deputy PM, the power behind Blair’s throne and the unelected official empowered to order around civil servants and ministers in his name. So great was his influence over the PM that yesterday some political pundits were asking if Blair would ever be the same force again.

His style was always aggressive and confrontational in the service of the New Labour project of which he was a principal architect and which was so successful in propelling the party and Blair to power in 1997. There are many who will rejoice that he has relinquished control at last of the formidable Downing Street spin machine, but he is expected to have the last laugh with the publication of his memoirs. Reports suggested yesterday that Campbell was set to earn at least 1m from his account of six years at the heart of government.

Alastair John Campbell was born in Keighley, West Yorkshire, in 1957 to Donald, a vet from Kilmarnock, and his wife Elizabeth. A bright schoolboy, he went to Cambridge and read modern languages before his first forays into the printed word. He is legendary for supplementing his grant by writing sexual fantasies for the top-shelf magazine Forum but he eventually got a respectable job as a trainee with the Mirror Group.

When he went to the Mirror in the 1980s, he rapidly ascended the reporting ranks and was appointed political editor. In the cosy sphere of Westminster, where the boozy worlds of journalism and politics have a habit of colliding, he found himself indulging with a vengeance. Once he admitted that during a normal working day he had got through "15 pints of beer, half a bottle of Scotch and four bottles of wine with David Mellor (a Conservative cabinet minister at the time) for lunch". His volatility, and his sense of loyalty to his employer, were also never far from the surface. When Guardian writer Michael White made a joke about the death of Mirror owner Robert Maxwell, Campbell’s response was to thump him.

That was before he was promoted to the news editorship of Eddie Shah’s new Today newspaper and the pressures grew along with the drinking. It led to a famous nervous breakdown through which he was nursed by his long-time partner Fiona Millar.

The story goes that the turning point came when he was found slumped in a corridor at a Labour party conference by the then leader Neil Kinnock. The Welshman told him to pull himself together or he would "end up in the gutter".

When he chose the former option, Kinnock promised the dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporter a job in his press office once he got to No 10. Kinnock didn’t make it, but Campbell did. He had met Tony Blair socially and impressed him with his grip of political strategy. Their political marriage began in 1994 and was consummated on Blair’s rise to power three years later, with much of the credit going to his new right-hand man. Meanwhile Millar was also entering the inner circle as a trusted confidante of Blair’s wife Cherie. It was an unprecedented double act at the centre of the administration.

Campbell’s loyalty to Blair has never wavered and he has never flinched from confronting the journalists or newspapers who dared to stand in the way of the New Labour experiment. One indication of his style was a stand-to with the then deputy editor of the Mail on Sunday, Rod Gilchrist. He was chatting with Millar when Campbell marched across and "thrust his face within an inch of mine and declared: ‘You’re scum,’ Gilchrist wrote at the time. "I can’t personally vouch for how agents under questioning from the Gestapo must have felt, but it couldn’t have been greatly different from this before the thumb screws came out."

Campbell’s relationship with the press was one thing. His presentational genius was what Blair really valued. But even here there were highs and lows. He coined the phrase the "People’s Princess" for Blair to use after the death of Princess Diana in 1997. It perfectly captured the mood of the nation and increased the Prime Minister’s popularity. His 1998 description of Chancellor Gordon Brown, however, as "psychologically flawed" during a customary unattributable briefing sparked an internal war that threatened to sour the relationship between the two most powerful men in government.

Although Campbell later withdrew from front-line briefing of "the enemy," the successful partnership with Blair continued. But as in all long-term relationships in the pressure cooker of high-level politics, cracks started to emerge and grow. Their relationship has been buffeted in the last two years by concerns about the waning returns from spin and a series of events which placed great strain on their personal friendship.

The most significant was the angry late-night confrontation between Cherie Blair and Campbell last December, over her embarrassing dealings with Australian con-man Peter Foster, partner of her best friend Carole Caplin. A furious Campbell and his partner Millar, who handled Mrs Blair’s public affairs, ordered the Prime Minister’s wife to reveal her personal e-mails, after they learned a newspaper was to print proof that Foster had helped her to gain a discount on two flats she had bought in Bristol. Downing Street spokesmen had already flatly denied the claims, after Mrs Blair had assured Campbell they were untrue.

The episode represents both a demonstration of the power Campbell wielded over Blair himself, and a crucial elevation in the tensions between them.

Last May, professing he wanted a life outside the Downing Street inferno, Campbell drafted his resignation letter. But, although he was desperate to escape, Blair believed he still needed his guidance.

The following day, however, BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan broadcast the fateful report accusing the government and, eventually, Campbell himself, of meddling with intelligence to make the case for war. The fortunes of Blair and Campbell were, once again, lashed together. Although Campbell embarked on the crusade against the BBC that was to keep him in Downing Street a little longer, it was the final straw that ultimately hastened his departure.

The end came when the spinner of stories became the story himself. If Campbell obstinately refused to believe the critics who claimed he had become too powerful in Blair’s government, he could not gainsay the assessment of the Prime Minister himself in the full glare of the Hutton Inquiry last Thursday morning.

"This extraordinarily serious allegation that, if it were true, would mean we had behaved in the most disgraceful way and I would have to resign as Prime Minister," was how Blair described the allegation that his government had manipulated intelligence to strengthen the case for disarming Iraq. It did not end there, however.

"Then what you had was a very specific allegation, and putting Alastair Campbell into this. Once you then put that into the pot along with everything else, you have something that is no longer a small item."

It was, indisputably, time to go.

Even though Campbell himself had made it widely known in Westminster that he had wanted out since May, when the rumour that he was to quit on Friday began to circulate amongst parliamentary journalists, it was still widely rejected.

"Total bollocks," one fellow government spinner replied when confronted with the rumour. Two hours later, with Downing Street inundated with calls, the spinner-in-chief was forced into his final official act of media manipulation. Reports of his demise were not premature, and confirmation was thus delivered a week earlier than he had planned.

Some see it as a last act of loyalty. "If he had decided to go anyway," ventured former defence minister Lewis Moonie by way of explanation, "then he might as well go when his resignation is of most use." The hard-headed thinking behind Moonie’s explanation also calculates that, after a stormy interlude of unprecedented length and fury, Blair has, at last, reached calmer waters.

After an assured Prime Ministerial performance before the Hutton Inquiry, Campbell believes he has coached his boss through the most perilous obstacle in his path. But Blair, aware that the inquiry has uncomfortably laid bare the extent of Campbell’s powers, and that such an arrangement is unlikely to escape Hutton’s censure, was finally happy to let him stand down. With parliament still on holiday and Labour a month away from its party conference, this was an ideal opportunity to get the big news out of the way.

Yet opponents contended that, rather than slip the news out like a guilty secret, the government had in fact hyped it up to deflect attention from its continuing problems. Liberal Democrat president Mark Oaten said: "In his own departure, Alastair Campbell has managed his greatest spin ever. When we should be talking about where those weapons of mass destruction are, when we should be talking about what is happening in Iraq where our soldiers are being killed and peace is a long way off, he has taken those headlines away and made himself again the major news story. It is a masterstroke."

Campbell and Millar, who has also quit Downing Street, now intend to spend more time with their three children. There will be more time for football - he was at Turf Moor yesterday watching his beloved Burnley - the bagpipes and being Scottish. In 1990, at the World Cup in Italy, he played the pipes on the terraces as Scotland took to the pitch.

"There are huge upsides in a position like this," he wrote in his resignation letter, "the people, events and places that you encounter; the feeling that you are able to make a difference; the knowledge that you are witnessing history in the making. But there are downsides and these are mostly borne by your family. In some jobs, and this is one of them, there is no such thing as a day off, or a night off, or a holiday without interruption. The pressures are real and intense and it is your family which pays the price."

But there will be a living to earn after the disappearance of around 200,000 in combined salaries. The smart money is on Campbell returning soon with newspaper and magazine articles and television appearances. In this age of instant political analysis, his insights will be TV gold.

Then there are the memoirs based on the obsessively-kept diaries he maintained throughout his decade riding the New Labour tiger. Campbell may have gone, but his unique access to the corridors of power mean he will not be easily forgotten. Despite his loathing of the media, he may also harbour ambitions to get back into newspapers. Once he was asked what he would rather do given a choice between being Prime Minister and editor of the Mirror.

He unhesitatingly replied: "Editor of the Mirror."

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