Interview: Alastair Campbell, former spin doctor to Tony Blair

Alastair Campbell pictured in London. Picture: PA
Alastair Campbell pictured in London. Picture: PA
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ALASTAIR Campbell, the former spin doctor to Tony Blair, talks to Stephen McGinty about the Iraq War, Gordon Brown, Alex Salmond and Scottish independence, and the one thing that keeps him awake at night.

The fact that Alastair Campbell does not trust journalists is quite clear to readers of his published diaries, the fourth volume of which this week crashes through the shelves and onto the toes of startled bookshop staff. Over the 752 pages which lead us from 11 September 2001, through the invasion of Iraq, the tragic death of Dr David Kelly and the Hutton Inquiry to Campbell’s own departure from Downing Street on 29 August 2003, the Fourth Estate is roundly abused as dishonest, corrupt and prejudiced, with one journalist from the Daily Mail even dismissed as a c***. (He dared ask if the Prime Minister had “blood on his hands” over the death of the government weapons inspector. By comparison, Tony Blair is milder in language and tighter in his geographical focus. On a visit to Glasgow and faced with an assortment of Scots journalists Blair turned to his driver and asked: “Have you ever seen a bigger bunch of unreconstructed wankers in your life?” Unfortunately the man he addressed was not, in fact, a driver but one of the “unreconstructed”.)

Campbell pictured with Tony Blair. Picture: PA

Campbell pictured with Tony Blair. Picture: PA

The fact that Campbell does not trust me, however, is clear shortly after he strides into Crussh, a London juice bar that specialises in “fit food and fruit smoothies” which he suggested as a meeting spot due to its proximity to his previous meeting.

As he agrees to get the photographs over with first, I offer to look after his grey V-neck sweater and black briefcase, but he does a comedy jerk as if I had volunteered to liberate a wad of notes from his wallet with which to entertain his wife in Paris. He then proceeds to check through the bag’s contents, weighing up, perhaps, the potential damage of me catching a peek at his latest training schedule or that new memo on PR advice to the Syrian government. (I would like to assure you that Campbell would never take on a despot as a client, but as I had no intention of rummaging through his bag when his back was turned to confirm this point, how can I be sure?)

Upon his return, I attempt to ingratiate myself by stumping up for his salad, orange juice and slice of carrot cake while he makes up for his earlier dark suspicions by carrying my bag to the upstairs tables. He takes a minute to check his e-mails and then we are off. I want to start by asking him about Gordon Brown, or GB as he appears in the diaries, a man described by Tony Blair (TB) as “bonkers”, “crackerjack” and “destructive”, who daily treated the Prime Minister “like shit” and who by 2001 had become a “largely malign force”.

At one point, Campbell explains in the diaries that “TB states that if people knew the truth about how GB treats him they would be appalled”. Yet the fact is that Campbell, as communications director, dismissed enquiries into the true nature of the Prime Minister and Chancellor’s destructive relationship as “tittle tattle”, finally admitting the truth a decade later.

So the reality was that Blair viewed Brown as a destructive, malign force at the heart of government?

“At times… At times… ”

But it was kept from the public. Surely the public has a right to know?

“I agree… I agree with that. It is a fundamental tension.”

And your job, partly, was to disguise that?

“I agree with that. I agree with that. I accept it. However, where there is a difference, though, is that I think we really try our level best, all the time, to be truthful.” He goes on to explain that it was necessary to keep a lid on how terrible relations were between No 10 and No 11 to protect the economy. “Imagine I had said: ‘Yes. They had a massive big row about the Euro.’ That moves markets.”

Later I ask: ‘Was it your job to steer people away from the facts?

“No.”

To maybe disguise them?

“Maybe that… But I have got to tell you, all these journalists who routinely say: ‘Alastair Campbell lies’… when you ask them for direct evidence, there is next to none. Sometimes we f***ed up. Sometimes we misled people because we had the wrong information. The issue with Cherie and the flats. [Campbell denied to the Press that Cherie Blair used the convicted fraudster Peter Foster to negotiate the purchase of two flats in Leeds, only for the Prime Minister’s wife to later admit she had used his services.]

“We said something that turned out not to be true. We got flak for it. But I am somebody who when I was a journalist, I used to lose sleep if I thought I got something wrong. It was the same when I was in Downing Street. I have been to select committees, Leveson, the Hutton Inquiry. I work really hard to prepare myself for those things. I don’t know how to say this, but I can’t lie. If you ask me to say something that is not true, then I can’t do it. I lose sleep over it.”

“When I went to Leveson there was one question that I was really worried about being asked. It was, how could I justify saying that I hadn’t said the phrase “psychologically flawed” [in reference to Gordon Brown] when I admitted in my diaries that I said enough for Andrew Rawnsley to run that piece [in the Observer]. Now it was a very narrow thing, but that wasn’t the phrase. I can’t remember the exact wording. It is in the diary and if you read the diary, see how much I’m not sleeping. I’m terrified that Tony was going to be asked about it in the Commons. I felt terrible. I hate making mistakes and I shouldn’t have gone over the top, but I was at the end of my tether. I would have found that difficult. I could have explained it, but I would have sat there slightly wriggling.”

The diaries, which make for gripping reading despite the absence of a single elegant sentence, are full of sleepless nights, anger and a surprising number of tears. In spite of his image as the “hard man” of spin doctors, Campbell cries easily. The death of Dr David Kelly and his subsequent appearance in front of the Hutton Inquiry led to frequent bouts of weeping.

“My son, when he first read The Blair Years, said: ‘Dad, do you really f***ing cry as much as this?’ I am very emotional. I cry a lot at music. I cry a lot at sports. I am an absolute basket case at the Olympics; any national anthem, I just well up. Sometimes it was a hard job and sometimes I just felt totally ground down and if you throw the depression into that as well, sometimes I would just get very sad and the tears can be an extraordinary release. When I feel really bad I sometimes go for a run and think about things almost to make myself cry, because I feel better after the run and better after the cry. It is just the way I am.”

He insists that despite the debacle that followed and the flak he received at home from Fiona, his partner, over the invasion, Iraq was justified. “I think it’s complicated. I still think we did the right thing. You have got to remember it was never a choice between difficult choice and no choice, but difficult choice and difficult choice.” The death of Kelly was a tremendous trauma and the final catalyst for his already long-delayed departure. The diaries also reveal that the weapon inspector’s widow send a message through Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, that she bore him no ill-will.

“Obviously I wish that David Kelly was still alive and I wish that, for whatever reason, he wasn’t compelled to take his own life. But I don’t think that if you are accused of essentially making up intelligence and putting it into a document and the Prime Minister presents that document to parliament and it is part of a case for military action, you can’t just let that lie.”

While on holiday in France in the weeks prior to his appearance before the Hutton Inquiry, Campbell frequently broke down in tears with the stress and even considered suicide. The black dog of depression has nipped at his heels for decades and it is to his credit that he has spoken so publicly about it in an attempt to remove the stigma from the condition. He explains that he is just finishing a course of medication after a recent bad bout. “It is like being dead and alive at the same time. You are alive. You answer the phone, you can drink orange juice, you can read a paper, but inside you feel like you are dead. Everybody is different but it is that sense of the uncontrollable. Fiona always asks what triggered it? Which is as bad as saying, ‘pull yourself together’. You say, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. But I feel really bad.’ Sometimes there might be a trigger but often as not, it just seeps into you and there is nothing you can do about it.”

Today Campbell enjoys a lucrative career advising banks and multi-national companies on communications and strategy, which more than pays the bills and allows him to dedicate the remainder of his time to sport, charity work and politics. I tell him that he seems to love the limelight, but he disagrees and insists he is simply using his notoriety to assist in good causes. “I can show you the bundles of projects I’ve turned down,” he says.

Yet he is not unaware of why he is employed. “Yes they want me because I’m me and I’ve got quite a good brain and I’m strategic and all that, but there is a part of it that they want you because you are quite well known and you used to work with Tony Blair.”

The prospect of an independent Scotland concerns Campbell, whose parents are both Scottish and who plays the bagpipes with some skill. (In the diaries the single incident in which Brown smiles is when Campbell plays from the balcony of No 10). He considers himself British first and Scottish second and he corrects people who refer to him as English. Like many others he has been surprised at the success of the SNP.

“I don’t think people should underestimate Alex Salmond but a lot of people overestimate him. I think a lot of the media do. He’s not that great. He ran a very successful campaign. He is a very confident performer but it is really interesting to see that he is running away from so many of these arguments now. I get a lot of grief from SNP supporters because I tweet a lot about this. I did one the other day. There was a big piece in the FT about the SNP trying to work out how to stay in Nato and I tweeted: ‘He is keeping the Queen. He is keeping the pound and now he is keeping Nato. What is this independence going to look like?’ Is anyone sensing that he is feeling a little bit less confident than he used to?”

He believes that Alistair Darling is the right man to lead the charge against him: “I’m really pleased that Alistair Darling is taking a big role in it. He is credible and he is clever, but I think it is going to be a big argument and debate. ”

Campbell feels it is unfair that many Scots in England, such as his parents, will be denied a say in the future of their country. “My dad was from the Hebrides and my mum from Ayrshire. My mum is in her 80s. She has lived in England since she was married as my dad was a vet here, and she is really kind of worried about it. She thinks it will be terrible for Scotland. Given how important the Scottish diaspora is to Scotland and its sense of its own nationhood, I think we sold the pass a bit early on, the fact that only the people who live there can vote. Is my mum less Scottish than Alex Salmond? Is Alex Ferguson less Scottish than Alex Salmond? I don’t think so. He has lived in England for a long time, but he is Scottish.

“People would have to decide where you draw the line. It might be first generation. I have three kids and my two sons will say they are Scottish and they have never lived in Scotland. Maybe the cut-off point is born in Scotland, or of Scottish parentage. So there will be people who can vote in the referendum whom I would argue are less Scottish than my mum, who doesn’t have a vote and who feels that without any say in it whatsoever her country is possibly going to change fundamentally. All I am saying is that I was surprised that there was never even a debate about this.”

By the time we leave Crussh and walk back to the tube station together I’ve decided that I rather like Alastair Campbell. The diaries, originally written in Teeline shorthand, will be a treasure for historians for decades, even centuries to come. As we walk through summer sunshine he explains that he is most proud of having been compared to the great diarist Samuel Pepys. Yes, I explain, but without the drunken whoring. He eyes me suspiciously, then laughs.

l The Alastair Campbell Diaries: Volume 4 – The Burden of Power: Countdown to Iraq is published by Hutchinson, priced £25.