Catherine Deveney Interview - Alastair Campbell

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL was said to have an ego the size of a house by his old boss's wife, Cherie Blair. He wouldn't disagree.

It's a bit of a shame the Cherie thing ended badly. Everyone knows they had their moments but he always thought they got on okay. (In the aftermath of "moments", they dabbed each other's cuts and bruises a bit.) He didn't even mind when she called him "a charming thug". In fact, the only thing he objected to was when she claimed Campbell had told her hairdresser, "You're only a f***ing hairdresser." Even the hairdresser denies that, says Campbell. "I might say to Tony, 'You're only the f***ing Prime Minister,' but I would never say to a hairdresser, 'You're only a f***ing hairdresser.'"

There's a nice philosophical distinction here about the rules of engagement when being abusive: go up the line, not down. And it's true that if you want to know what a person's really like, you learn more by asking the people below them in the pecking order than above. Interestingly, Campbell has now written a novel, All in the Mind, and one of the characters produces a little essay on humility. Most people would not associate humility with Campbell. "Most people don't know me," he points out.

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Campbell was regarded as the Machiavellian architect of New Labour; the spin doctor who died of giddiness. He was the Downing Street communications manager accused of "sexing up" the Iraq dossier which led to the suicide of government adviser David Kelly. But, he insists, "I'm not interested in power per se. I'm not a status person at all, which is why I could never really see myself ever going into the House of Lords… For the sake of it."

Which is not to say the man now informally advising Gordon Brown isn't a control freak. "Control is different," he agrees. It's immediately apparent when he opens the door to his Hampstead home, dressed in jeans and a peppermint-green shirt. "Oh my God," he groans as his opening line, putting his head against the door when he sees our photographer, assistant and lights. It's good-humoured enough, but you can see from the restrained nervous energy of him how that might tip. You certainly wouldn't mistake him for a patient man. "I hate chaos," he mutters, which I understand, so we raise our eyes in silent protest at the chaotic world of photography .

How does he feel when he's not in control? It depends. If he's in a football crowd and his team have scored minutes from the end and the place is uncontrollable and wild, he likes it. If he breaks his leg, he wants to go to the hospital and know there's someone in charge who isn't him. "But when I am doing something that I am involved in and which means something to me and is important, I want to feel in control. But in trying to get control of the government communication machinery, I was doing it so Tony could better exercise the power he had. I didn't see it as a power thing for me."

He clashed with the press despite formerly being a journalist himself and doing 24-hour shifts outside Prince Andrew's girlfriend's house. The difference, he says, is that while once he got a story wrong and couldn't sleep all night worrying about it, now "there are a lot of journalists who don't really care that much whether what they write or broadcast is true". It was once reported, for example, that Campbell was to work at Manchester United with his friend Alex Ferguson. Campbell phoned the journalist. It wasn't true. I know, the journalist said, but it was a good story, and he was desperate. "That's what I rail against," says Campbell.

The walls of Campbell's hall are lined with political cartoons. Thatcher, Mandelson, Blair… they're all there, the physical characteristics exaggerated to comic effect. In many ways, that's what happened to Campbell's personality. He became a one-dimensional figure. The psychological equivalent of a slight curve in the spine became a Quasimodo hump. We knew about his breakdown in 1986 and the alcoholism that fuelled it, about his anger and impatience and obsessive nature – and little else.

His published diaries gave insight into his methods. But perhaps his novel is even more revealing. It's the story of mental breakdown, of patients visiting a psychiatrist who is expected to fix everything but is having a breakdown of his own. The characters are surprisingly sentimental. They search for meaning and find God by examining the individuality of raisins. As you move in Campbell's house from the hall into the kitchen, the art changes from brash political cartoons to framed children's drawings. Another angle, another facet.

DEPRESSION IS CUT FROM a recognisably dark cloth but it's not a uniform. It's not one size fits all. Campbell read somewhere that the author Margaret Drabble described it as like being injected with a liquid that slowly spreads through the body. "I don't feel like that. I feel…" he says, searching for words, "that it starts with a knot somewhere inside you and you just feel it grow and that's when I know, oh shit… and it just feels like everything is a monumental effort and after you've made the effort you feel exhausted."

When he's not depressed – and he's not right now – he finds it hard to recollect the exact feel of it, the texture. Then it comes back and it's like taking an old jacket from the back of the wardrobe. The vaguely familiar smell of the cloth as it's lifted out… the weight of it as it's put on your back… and before you know it, you're right back in the skin of it.

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For the famous, depression is almost a career asset. It's linked to 'creativity'. But Campbell doesn't blame ordinary people for saying they have flu when they're off work with depression. There's so much stigma still. Which challenged his condition more: the incredible stress of working with Blair, or the sudden emptiness when he left? Well, not the job. He handled that. "It's true that after I left I had a really big crash but I think that was a combination of things."

A few weeks after leaving, David Blunkett came for dinner. Was it good, he asked Campbell's daughter Grace, then nine, to have her dad at home more? Oh yes, Grace said. And what did he do all day? Well, Grace replied, see that chair you're sitting in? When she left for school in the mornings, her dad was sitting in it. And when she came home he was lying in it. "I was exhausted," says Campbell.

But he misses the big moments. "I remember when Tony went to see Gaddafi. It was in a tent and there were camels wandering about and I thought, 'Oh God, I'd love to be at that.' And the US election result – you are in Number 10, it's a long way away, but that's a really big moment. You've got to think about it, plan for it." Writing his novel is the closest he has come to the buzz of his old job. "It's not a replacement but it's the nearest I've got. There was a purpose to it. I miss the big driving purpose."

Depressives are often regarded as simply gloomy. But they are often interesting people because they think deeply, feel deeply, care deeply. Campbell is no exception. But he is also humorous. You sense real mischief in him when he describes stopping Tony Blair from ending a broadcast about Iraq with, "God Bless." Discussing the start, Blair asked, how will I begin? "And I said," says Campbell, voice a mere whisper with laughter, "How about, 'My fellow Americans…'"

But perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Campbell is that the man regarded as a bruiser is surprisingly emotional. "I was surprised when I read my diaries back. And I remember my eldest son Rory reading them and saying, 'Dad, do you have to do all this crying shit?' He wasn't impressed at all. But I am, you see."

Campbell's childhood was happy, devoid of the depression that would later dog him. "My mum says I was never any trouble. They never had to ask me to do my homework, I just did it. I was always hard-working and I think I was quite funny. I was quite big into extended family, and sport was always massive, particularly football. The only thing I can think of as a bad experience in childhood is that when I was 11, my dad, who was a vet, had this bad accident. He couldn't cope with private practice any more, so he joined the Ministry of Agriculture and we were uprooted and moved to Leicester."

Both parents were Scottish but Campbell (a bagpipe player and avowed Scot), his two older brothers and younger sister, were born in Yorkshire. His father was from the Hebrides, and Campbell admired the way he prospered in a different culture. He inherited his father's workaholic tendencies but his dad was more naturally gregarious. When Campbell took to the road with Blair in the 1997 election campaign, his father was unwell with a variety of conditions. "I said to my mother, 'I hope he doesn't die while we're on the road.'"

In fact, his father was to live for seven more years. When Campbell was writing a funeral section for his novel, he found it draining. "Writing it, I was crying buckets of tears. Every time I read the funeral speeches, I can feel it." Why the speeches? "I don't know. They're very powerful. I hate funerals. I haven't been to a funeral that I haven't cried at. I hate speaking at funerals." I wonder why he says that, then it occurs that perhaps he spoke at his father's. You might expect the oldest son rather than the third to take on that duty, but did Campbell speak? "Yeah. Yeah, I did," he says quietly. How did he get through that if he has never been to a funeral where he didn't cry? "I took some pills."

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His father had been in a nursing home for a spell. "He hated it. He didn't complain but I could tell he hated it. He just wanted to be at home. He died at home. I remember two things. Before he died, Kim Howells, the foreign office minister, said to me, 'No matter how prepared you think you are, you're not. It's like losing a limb.' That's exactly how I felt. And I remember afterwards Gordon (Brown] wrote to me. He said he still saw his father every day. And I completely got that as well. If you're not religious, and I'm not, it's the only way you can make sense of this, that there's still spirit there, still something there that is speaking to you."

We know Campbell is not religious because he once famously said, "We don't do God." Why does everyone prefix that quote with the word 'famously', he asks curiously. Because it is. But, he points out, so many of his phrases – like "bog-standard comprehensive" – became infamous. "We don't do God" was just a throwaway line. He says, "It's not like, 'New Labour, New Britain'. We planned that. Or 'Education, education, education'. We planned that. 'People's princess', we talked about that."

"We don't do God" was an accident. Blair was being questioned by an American journalist, a master of prolonging interviews. Campbell does a funny impersonation of his smooth transatlantic charm. "Just one more question, Prime Minster… if I may bring the interview to a close in this way, Prime Minister." Blair was too polite to curtail it but Campbell has never been afflicted with the need for politeness. So when yet another 'final' query enquired about Blair's faith, Campbell wrapped it up with a humorous, "We don't do God."

He is not anti-religion. "I always say I am a pro-faith atheist. I think it's good that people believe strongly in things." In fact, Blair once joked that if Campbell ever found God he'd be a fundamentalist. "There's a lot of God in there," Campbell admits of his novel. "I wanted to give a sense of someone finding God without overdoing it." His editor suggested leaving one spiritual section out because it was sentimental but he resisted. "One of the characters goes through a forest and there's this light and she looks down and there's an amazing view. That happens to me quite a lot. I was doing a biathlon round Loch Ness and it was really tough and my legs were sore and I was thinking, bloody hell, when are we getting out of this forest? Then I got to the top of this clearing and the view was unbelievable. Suddenly you are out of trees and you have land and hills and a loch… Was that a spiritual moment? It felt like it. Does it mean I believe in God? No."

He left politics to experience more of those moments. To get a life. Did he find one? Or did he find that he'd left the pinnacle of life? "Both those can be true," he says. They can indeed. And I suspect they are.

CAMPBELL'S PARTNER Fiona Millar worked for Cherie Blair for a time but it ended badly. Campbell still sees Blair but they don't exactly go out in a foursome. Millar hated Campbell's all-consuming job. In fact, reading his diaries it's miraculous they are still together. "I agree," he says. "I was surprised going through the diaries and you know," he adds, so disarmingly that we both suddenly laugh, "the full story is worse…" In his novel, the psychiatrist's disastrous marriage is illustrated by petty tensions: his wife's fury, for example, at his inability to open the milk cartons in the fridge in order of date. Personal experience? "That's the story of every bloody marriage," he replies.

So what ultimately kept them together? "Fiona's a strong person. Deep down, there's a hell of a lot between us and the family is really strong. Looking back, I probably didn't really get how horrific it must have been for her. Even when I was here, I wasn't here in my mind. But, equally, I thought she should be more understanding. That's just the way marriages go, isn't it?" He hopes his relationship with his children wasn't damaged. "I don't think so. Who knows?" Nothing snaps him out of depression quicker than his daughter's impatience with him. And his two boys, Rory, 21, and Calum, 19, are both studying politics so they haven't been put off. "I'm very close to the kids. If I have a decision to make, I talk to the boys always."

He doesn't have a full-time job, doesn't want one. He makes enough money without. But how much is he doing for Gordon Brown? "Not as much as is suggested in the papers. Probably not as much as Gordon might want." Brown showed him his conference speech at various stages and Campbell gave ideas, some of which were accepted and some rejected. Just as he used to do with Blair. "Just as Tony had a group of people, one removed, whom he could talk to, Gordon will sometimes phone up and say, 'I've been trying to get this point over about such and such, can you have a think about it?' I might think about a line or an idea for a speech or a visit. I feel strongly that the Tories don't deserve to get back, and in so far as I am doing anything, I am thinking about how you can best get over to the public the reality that the Tories aren't up to it."

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It interests him that Brown has picked up during the financial crisis. "He's had a pretty hellish year but seems to be coming into his own in a much more difficult policy environment. When Cameron was bouncing around all cuddly and friendly, Gordon was perceived as the dour Scot and people now look and think, maybe we need a bit of that. Cameron is vulnerable. And don't even get me started on your neck of the woods. Alex Salmond… a man who fell in love with himself at an early age and has remained entirely faithful ever since."

He is impatient with the Labour Party's inability to act as a unit right now. And why did they get so defensive over David Miliband? "Too many people were putting the boot in. Gordon needs big hitters round him." When Blair was in power, the party had Prescott, Cook, Dewar, Beckett, Cunningham… But wasn't Miliband seen as smug and disloyal? "He wasn't disloyal. He was making a perfectly reasonable case for what the party needed to do."

There were times, Campbell admits, when he told Blair that Brown was becoming too big. "To his credit, Tony always said, 'I want big figures out there.' The Tories are vulnerable on this. Who do the public know apart from Cameron and Hague… and Osborne now for the wrong reasons?"

But Campbell, as he admits himself, was Blair's man. Has he a good enough relationship with Brown to also be his? "I am not going to lie. It's bloody obvious in the diaries that there are times when harsh words get said. But I had a golden rule that I didn't brief against ministers. People just don't want to believe that." Yet Campbell is reputed to have once told the respected political journalist Andrew Rawnsley that Brown was "psychologically flawed". "No, I didn't. It's no secret I whacked into Charlie Whelan (Brown's adviser] from time to time but I did not describe Gordon as psychologically flawed."

He's an interesting man, Campbell. Direct. Apparently open. You almost believe him when he denies calling Brown flawed. But Rawnsley confirmed in print last year that Campbell had said it. "Did he?" says Campbell, sounding genuinely taken aback. He doesn't read the papers any more. "That's news to me." Well, leaving aside whether he said it or not, does he believe it? There is a second's very telling hesitation. Then, in a moment that is pure Alastair Campbell, he smiles very charmingly and says, "We're all psychologically flawed."

All in the Mind (17.99, Hutchinson), by Alastair Campbell, is out now