15 December, 2007Issue 7.1EuropePolitics & Society

Email This Article Print This Article

Spin When You’re Winning

Patrick Tomlin

Alastair Campbell
The Blair Years: Extracts from The Alastair Campbell Diaries
Hutchinson, 2007
794 pages
ISBN 978-0091796297

Armando Ianucci
The Thick of It: The Complete First Series

Tony Blair once famously claimed (after laughably suggesting to the press that soundbites would be left at home) to have felt ‘the hand of history’ upon his shoulder. He is now fully enveloped in its grasp, having left office in June 2007. Admittedly, he still has a chance of altering his place in history as the Quartet’s Middle East representative – and what an achievement paving the way to peace in that region would be – but, assuming he fails to do the impossible, Blair the politician has passed into the past and now waits for judgement. As far as he still occupies our thoughts, it is in the terms of the vexed question of ‘legacy’ (a question that troubled Blair while in office) as we seek to evaluate Blair’s ten years at the centre of power and ask ourselves what kind of prime minister he was and how history will judge him.

Blair’s former communications supremo Alastair Campbell offers us an attempt to contribute to that discussion from within Blair’s inner circle with recently published extracts from the diaries he kept in the years that he spent at Blair’s side. As one of Blair’s closest and most trusted advisors, firmly ensconced on the infamous sofa from which we have since learned Britain was governed, Campbell saw all and heard all, and doesn’t appear to omit any detail from this seemingly no-holds-barred memoir. Quite what has been left out and why, however, is one the inescapable questions posed to the reader of this type of personal account and Campbell’s tome is no exception. Meanwhile, the BBC, Campbell’s principal enemy in his later days at Number 10, have provided us with one of the finest political sitcoms in years in the form of The Thick of It. A satire of the New Labour government with a character based on Campbell at its centre, this too will have some bearing on history’s understanding and judgment of the Blair era.

Campbell’s book is a study of a man as prime minister-in-waiting, and then as premier. For a political memoir, there is precious little politics in this book. Of course, there is plenty of detail of the cut-and-thrust of Westminster, the parties and personalities involved, but there is little comment on what Campbell actually thinks in terms of policy. The reader comes out with little notion of Campbell’s world-view, other than the pair of binary assumptions which appear to underpin his life throughout the years recorded in this book: Campbell is unremittingly and unquestioningly pro-Blair and pro-Labour. Perhaps we should not be surprised, for Campbell once described himself to The Guardian as ‘very tribal… I’m Labour, I’m Burnley, I’m Campbell’. Loyalty – to party, to football club, to clan, to leader – is important to this man, and the small matter of whether he agrees with their aims, strategy or tactics comes a firm second behind his all-consuming loyalty to a cause and desire to win. One of the few instances in which he disagrees with Blair is over the then-leader-of-the-opposition’s decision to send his children across town to a selective, though not fee-paying, school, rather than to the local comprehensive. Even then, however, it is never quite clear whether Campbell’s objections are over the act itself, or the difficulties it creates for him in presenting it to media and party.

Perhaps the lack of substantive political analysis is to be expected in a spin doctor’s diary and it means that the focus is pushed onto two aspects of the Blair government: the characters and personalities involved (not least that of Blair himself), and Blair’s approach to government and politics and his attention to the media in particular.

One thing to be said about Campbell’s diaries is that, despite his fierce loyalty to Blair, he has far from presented us with a hagiography. According to Campbell, upon learning about his plans to publish the diaries, Blair reacted by saying ‘I hope it comes over that, despite everything, we were always able to have a good laugh.’ Notwithstanding this being a rather bizarre priority for a former prime minister regarding a memoir intimately recording nearly a decade by his side, this side of Blair does come across. A gallows-type humour is in evidence in the Blair-Campbell dynamic, with their senses of humour often rising to the fore when things are looking bleak. There is often joshing and banter recalled in the office, in the car, in hotel rooms. Perhaps the most memorable scene recorded by Campell is when he describes a pre-election Blair in a Tokyo bedroom:

‘the Japanese saw in TB a very new and attractive kind of leader. I wondered if they would have felt the same if they had seen him later, sitting in his bedroom at the residence, wearing nothing but his underpants and an earthquake emergency helmet which we all had in our rooms, pretending to speak Japanese’.

Contrary to his hope, however, the primary impression we are left with is not Blair as comedian. These are men of business in challenging and stressful roles, and that comes through more forcefully than anything else. Blair’s demanding nature is a recurrent theme. He forever appears to be telling Campbell to take more time off, more time for himself, while piling more and more work and pressure upon him and relying on him more and more. Sometimes this side of Blair tips over into downright selfishness – Campbell recalls an occasion when he and Peter Mandelson visited Blair’s home and had a bet how long they would be there before being offered any refreshment. Another time, an aide waits in the rain for Blair, who, upon arriving, snatches her umbrella from her and leaves her to be soaked. Campbell describes this as an ‘astonishing moment of TB selfishness’. Yet this self-centred disposition is perhaps less a reflection on Blair’s individual nature and more a natural consequence of a decade in such a demanding job. From so close in, we are invited to reflect on the sheer scale of what such people go through, what they put in, give up and reckon with.

Blair may be the main attraction, the name in lights, but Campbell’s diaries are an ensemble piece. Some of the most fascinating passages in the book concern the New Labour cabal of Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown, Philip Gould, Blair and Campbell and the relationships between them. Blair is forever frustrated by the inability of the three people upon whom he most relies – Campbell, Brown and Mandelson – to work together. For the Westminster insider (or even for the average news junkie), there are few enmities described herein that have not already been rumoured – it is hardly news, for instance, that Brown and Mandelson have been sworn enemies since the latter backed Blair above the former in the 1994 Labour leadership election. Yet Campbell’s diaries provide more than the same old picture. Rather than gossip and rumour, we get concrete incidents, arguments and recriminations. Perhaps the Westminster village already knows of such exchanges, but they’re new to the outsider.

One of the most interesting parts of the book, for example, concerns Mandelson’s first resignation from the Cabinet, over an undeclared loan he took from a colleague who was under investigation by his department. Mandelson was confident that it was the Brown’s camp that had leaked details of the loan to the press, precipitating his decline. Yet despite his conviction that Brown was either the architect of or the inspiration behind his plight, it was to Brown that Mandelson increasingly turned for advice and approval as he sought first to save his career and, when that became impossible, to leave government with as much credibility for himself and the New Labour project as he could salvage.

Alongside Blair and his other advisors, we inevitably get more than a fair bit of Campbell too. We closely follow his moods, which are volatile through the early years, before becoming darker and darker as he comes to resent a job that forces him to cross swords daily with a media he patently despises (despite being a former journalist himself).

The picture of Campell that emerges, through the often intimate details he gives of himself, his life and his relationships, is far from saintly. He comes across as self-centred, not only in his all-consuming devotion to his job above his family obligations (much to his partner’s annoyance) but in the way that he consistently assumes that everyone else has an easy life in comparison with him. At one point, he speculates that ministers can’t take pressure like him because they’re not in the limelight. It cannot be denied that Campbell had an important and extremely stressful job but it is surely stretching the boundaries of credibility, not to mention somewhat patronising, to opine that senior ministers do not understand pressure or the limelight. Elsewhere, Campbell often appears to have little sympathy, or indeed empathy or solidarity, with Blair and the difficult and stressful job he has. Equally, Campbell can come across as hypocritical and blinkered. For example, he consistently lambastes the press for ‘pursuing an agenda’, while criticising former Tory prime minister John Major for failing to understand why, as a journalist, Campbell had supported him (in the hope of contributing to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher) before turning on him once he was the premier. Campbell’s attitude is that he was just ‘playing the game’. Yet there appears to be little distinction ‘between playing the game’ and ‘pursuing an agenda’, and Campbell’s failure to acknowledge this reveals a pointed solipsism.

Alongside this intriguing, colourful and flawed cast, we are invited to consider, through Campbell’s eyes, the Blair government’s attitude toward the media. Campbell plainly despises the media, his anger and disgust at the lobby he was charged with briefing is constantly evident. A fairly typical summing up of a briefing sees Campbell telling a journalist ‘I was sick of dealing with wankers. Why should I pretend to respect them when I didn’t?’

Yet despite his evident distaste at having to deal with the media (despite being communications director) Campbell seems to miss the point that his role and influence derived precisely from their importance to the New Labour operation. Campbell must rank as the most powerful press secretary ever – his unfettered access to Blair highly unusual for a role usually occupied by a civil servant. It was the New Labour obsession with spin and media manipulation and Campbell’s perceived abilities in these areas that opened the doors of power to him. The importance of the journalists that Campbell is so quick to label ‘little shits’ and ‘total cunts’ to the Blair operation was why he was treading the boards of power to begin with. A dichotomy at the heart of their attitude to the press is revealed – on the one hand, they will do anything to get, and keep, them onside (witness the lengths Blair goes to to woo Murdoch), on the other, they cannot stand them.

A common charge levelled at New Labour is that they are all style and no substance. Campbell’s importance to the Blair operation gives credence to this, as do incidents such as the one described by Campbell in which an argument regarding what clothes Blair should wear when giving a speech with Mandelson (who emerges as perhaps the most dramatic and fascinating character of all) boils over to the point that Mandelson to take a swing at both Campbell and his party leader:

‘He started to leave then came back over, pushed at me and threw a punch, then another. I grabbed his lapels to disable his arms and TB was by now moving in to separate us and PM just lunged at him’.

This aspect of New Labour brings to mind Armando Iannucci’s masterful sitcom The Thick of It. In this series – a Yes, Minister for the New Labour generation – psychotic, foul-mouthed, Scottish prime minister’s enforcer, Malcolm Tucker (brilliantly played by Peter Capaldi) is clearly based on Campbell. Set in the office of minister Hugh Abbot (played by the now-disgraced actor Chris Langham) it is an astute satire of the New Labour era, depicting a government gripped by media obsession. Shot in a fly-on-the-wall documentary style and heavily reliant on improvisation, this show feels like a glimpse into the inner workings of Westminster. The government we see is one that despises journalists while being desperate to keep them onside, is over-reliant on focus groups, and favours the input of all-powerful advisors and blue-sky thinkers over elected cabinet members. The swearing is as frequent as it is creative; it is well-known that the show employs a ‘swearing consultant’. Also on the team is Martin Sixsmith, a man who has seen the New Labour spin machine from the inside and who is labelled a ‘twat’ by Campbell in his diaries.

The opening episode is a shining example of how the show manages to perfectly capture and ridicule the New Labour style of government. In this instalment, Hugh Abbot proposes a policy to the prime minister and thinks he has been given permission implement it. He decides to announce the policy at a school and leaks information about the policy and its launch to the media. He then learns that the prime minister had, in fact, not approved the policy (he had said ‘This sounds like exactly the sort of thing we should be doing’, which is, Abbot learns from enraged enforcer Malcolm Tucker, very different from saying yes to it). We then see Abbot and his team trying desperately to convince a journalist that they had leaked the story to not to print it and to come up with a new policy to announce as they are driven to the launch. Later, Tucker informs Abbot that the prime minister (who, incidentally, we never see, reinforcing the impression that Tucker’s voice is the prime minister’s) is backing the policy the minister and his staff are left in the farcical situation of trying to convince journalists who attended the launch that they had in fact launched a policy that was never mentioned.

Sketch of AlistairIt is not difficult to see from a storyline like this that much of the humour derives from farce, but it also satirises so many elements of how the New Labour government is perceived. There is the centralisation of government, with cabinet members having to ask the permission of the prime minister before floating an initiative. There is the elevation of hired political appointees with influence beyond that of any minister or civil servant. There is the denigration of the role of parliament, with policies launched at media-friendly events rather than announced to the House. There is the attempt to make eye-catching policy on the hoof (or, in this case, the back of a car). Finally, and overwhelmingly, there is the sense that media portrayal matters above all else, giving rise to attempts to manipulate journalists, with whom the government employees have a love-hate relationship – they are lavished with praise when they might be helpful, bawled out and threatened when they fail to be. These are all things with which Blair’s government has been charged and many of which we see through the events recounted in Campbell’s book.

It is tempting to dismiss The Thick of It as an entertaining diversion, while hailing Campbell’s work as a fantastic resource for current and future historians. Indeed, Campbell boasts that his lawyer for the Hutton Inquiry, who is a medieval historian in his spare time, remarked upon reading the diaries that he wished people in the Middle Ages had kept such logs.

Despite its often-surprising candidness, however, Campbell’s book is not without an agenda. Campbell openly admits that it has been edited so that it does not cause too much trouble for new premier Gordon Brown. Campbell, as we have seen, is Labour to his fingertips, and would not make life difficult for a Labour prime minister, however much of his career he spent battling with and briefing against them. Thus, any revelations regarding the dysfunctional Blair-Brown relationship that has kept Westminster gossipmongers occupied for over a decade now must wait until Brown too has departed the stage. There are also conversations between Campbell and his master that he declares too personal to ever be recounted, and others between Blair and other world leaders which he has deemed too recent to be unleashed at present.

Aside from the acknowledged editing, it is difficult to know what else has been kept back in the editing process. It is also difficult to know how much of what went in has either been tinkered with or written with a view to publication in mind. This suspicion is reinforced by Campbell’s odd use of tense. Ordinarily in a diary, one would naturally record the day’s events in the past tense while writing about general impressions or emotions in the present. So, for example, one would say, ‘X did Y today. He can be such a Z’. Campbell, however, writes in the past tense both when discussing events and general impressions – so he would pen the example sentences as ‘X did Y today. He could be such a Z’.

This could simply be a matter of editing – but the result is quite disorientating. It makes the opinions feel like considered judgements, rather than off-the-cuff remarks delivered at the end of another dispiriting day at the office. It also gives rise to the impression that Campbell has either gone back and changed things – in which case, we might wonder what else he has changed – or that the diaries were originally written like that, precisely because Campbell was writing them for publication. When the inquiry clerk at the Hutton Inquiry introduced the diaries by saying, ‘They were written not for publication, or indeed for anyone except Mr Campbell to see’ there was open laughter in the courtroom, for it was well-known that Campbell kept diaries, intended to publish them, and referred to them as his ‘pension’. Knowing that these diaries would see the light of day must have affected how Campbell wrote them.

The Thick of It, on the other hand, as pure fiction, will clearly not offer a useful resource for historians of the New Labour era wanting to know what happened, why and when. It will, however, be a key clue to something else: public perception. It is often said that in order to be successful, satire must be based on truth, or at least on the perceived truth. The Thick of It is massively successful – adored by critics and the political classes. Why? Because the show’s portrayal of a government controlled from the centre, obsessed by the media, and writing policy to grab a headline all chime with the public perception of New Labour. Campbell’s diaries do little to dispel this impression.

So, we have a book that gives one man’s account of ten years as close to the centre of power as one can get – carefully edited, crafted with publication in mind and a day-to-day account with no pause for reflection, balance or distance – against an entire country’s perception of the ruling party and how they have approached government. Perhaps, in the long run, historians will find the latter more helpful. Blair’s Tokyo antics aside, they’ll definitely find it a lot funnier.

Patrick Tomlin is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Balliol College, Oxford and is a freelance writer.

Jonathan Aye is currently a finalist studying Fine Art at Ruskin, where he focuses on painting and writing. He also works on set design, and has written and produced a theatre piece currently being performed at the Durham Arts festival.