Book review: The Burden of Power: Countdown to Iraq – The Alastair Campbell Diaries

Campbell with Topny Blair. Picture: PA
Campbell with Topny Blair. Picture: PA
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In the past seven years Alastair Campbell has blessed us with a one-volume edition of his diaries, four volumes of the diaries unabridged, plus a couple of novels for good measure.

The Burden of Power: Countdown to Iraq – The Alastair Campbell Diaries

by Alastair Campbell

Hutchinson, 752pp, £25

Not a few are asking if the flow will ever stop. The latest tome takes us from the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US in 2001 to Campbell’s resignation in August 2003 as Tony Blair’s consigliere and media-handler. He was perhaps the most naturally gifted of all Blair’s advisers. I knew Campbell in the 1990s when I was press secretary to Prime Minister John Major and he was doing the same job for Blair as Leader of the Opposition. Later, after Blair came to power and I was British ambassador to the United States, we had quite a lot to do with each other, because of the closeness of Blair’s relations with presidents Clinton and Bush. I liked him; but his diaries give me a kick or two to the shins and we fell out for good over my own memoirs.

You have to ask who is going to read this stuff, apart from university politics departments and a fading generation who took part in the events described. The daily cut-and-thrust of politics goes stale faster than a cupcake. All those battles and personality clashes seem already so far away. Who cares what Charles Clarke or John Reid thought about this or that? Who were Charles Clarke and John Reid, for that matter? There is little of the wit or elegance that you find in, say, the diaries of Chris Mullin, a lesser Labour figure of the time. What Campbell does have is a kind of crude, confessional energy, which conveys very well the intolerable pressures under which prime ministers and their immediate staff work.

In a long introduction he parades a series of apologias on Iraq, the suicide of the Ministry of Defence scientist David Kelly, Gordon Brown’s feud with Blair, his own feud with the media. Since much of the material has already appeared in abridged form, there are no blinding revelations. But some things are thrown into sharp relief. Blair’s growing frustration with the Americans in the run-up to the Iraq war shows how little reward he received for hugging Bush close. There are some juicy morsels about the Blair-Brown feud which make nonsense of Brown’s assertion to Leveson that he never sought to bring down Blair.

All this is recorded against a background of Campbell’s personal and professional disintegration, often harrowingly described. The BBC gets it in the neck for reporting a red-hot scoop from Jack Straw in 2003 that weapons of mass destruction were unlikely ever to be found. This was the gamekeeper who had forgotten he was ever a poacher. In July 2003 Campbell tells his diary, in a characteristically self-regarding passage, that the government’s “lack of strategic capacity” is down to his not being “fully engaged”. But by then Blair had had enough of his behaviour; by the end of August he was gone.

It is worth getting hold of this book for one absolute gem: Bill Clinton’s mini-lecture to Campbell in early 2003 on where New Labour had gone wrong and what it needed to do to get back on track. It is a masterclass in democratic politics, which David Cameron would do well to read today.