Who will rid us of the over-mighty Campbell?
By Robert Harris
(Filed: 21/07/2003)


It is, according to witnesses who have seen it being composed in front of them, an extraordinary document. A typical entry might run to four sides of A4 - and not in longhand, either, but in his professional shorthand. He has been keeping it for nearly nine years, so I guess by now it must run to - what? - certainly more than a million words.

He calls it "my pension" and he once told me that he was going to make more money out of it than I have made out of all my novels put together. He might, too, for Alastair Campbell long ago grasped the profound wisdom of Mae West's advice: "Keep a diary, honey, and one day it will keep you."

I have been fascinated by the potential of Mr Campbell's journal for years. Closer to the centre of political events than any of the other great British political diarists - Crossman, Castle, Benn, Clark - and with a tabloid journalist's eye for colourful detail, Mr Campbell is going to dominate how this government appears in the history books, just as powerfully as he has sought to dominate how it appears in the pages of the daily press.

Why, I have repeatedly asked members of the Prime Minister's inner circle, is Tony Blair allowing him to do this? Doesn't he see the potential dangers? The answer is usually accompanied by a shrug: "Tony doesn't believe Alastair will ever be disloyal to him. And besides, how can he stop him?"

"How can he stop him?" The tone of helplessness says it all. Mr Campbell exercises an extraordinary psychological dominance over the Prime Minister. It seems he can get away with anything. He has called him "a prat" in front of one witness, has told him to "get a f------ move on" when he believes a meeting has gone on too long, and instructed him to drop what he is doing and concentrate on something else "because it can't f------ wait".

Watching him once on a mobile phone to Mr Blair, striding up and down and wagging his finger, I felt I was hallucinating: surely here was the Prime Minister issuing orders to an official rather than the other way round? He has allowed television cameras into his office to record a plainly startled Mr Blair stammering out his praises. He has even - at the time of the "Cheriegate" affair before Christmas - briefed against the Prime Minister's own wife. Not since the days of the Wars of the Roses has there been such an over-mighty subject at court.

But now, in the wake of the death of Dr David Kelly, the time must finally have arrived for a parting of the ways. Mr Campbell may have told friendly reporters on Friday that he has no intention of resigning. He may have telephoned newspaper editors on Saturday with the same message. He may even, for all I know, actually believe it, but if he does, he is kidding himself.

He is finished. If Lonrho, in Edward Heath's famous phrase, was "the unacceptable face of capitalism," then Alastair Campbell - scowling, surly, crew-cut - has become the unacceptable face of New Labour. He is a liability.

In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to have taken him into government in the first place. Campbell's real usefulness was in the early phase of the Blairite takeover of the Labour Party, and in particular in the run-up to the 1997 general election, when he displayed a merciless skill in hammering John Major's administration in the tabloid press, and was instrumental in delivering the mass-circulation Murdoch papers - the Sun and the News of the World - into the Labour camp.

But attack-dogs are best left tethered outside the front door rather than brought in to prowl around the drawing-room. Bill Clinton never made James Carville a member of his administration. Margaret Thatcher made use of Tim Bell, Gordon Reece and Maurice Saatchi at election time, but she never committed the folly of installing them in the Number 10 Press Office.

For the truth is that Campbell, contrary to the myth that he is a public relations genius, has, since 1997, been a disaster for the image of Tony Blair. Lacking any instinctive feel, or even respect, for the institutions of democracy - Parliament, Cabinet, Civil Service - he has given the impression that government is essentially a rolling, 24-hour-a-day tabloid newsroom, in which all that counts is the next day's headlines.

Announcements, and then disguised re-announcements, of increases in funding for education and health, for example, which were taken on trust in the first Blair administration, frequently proved to be less than met the eye, with the consequence that when, in the second term, real increases were announced, they were met with cynicism.

Absurd prime ministerial notions - marching offenders to cash-point machines for on-the-spot fines, intervening in support of characters in Coronation Street - caught the front pages for a day and then were forgotten, leaving a lingering impression that much of what Tony Blair might say need not be taken too seriously.

Crass blunders at lobby briefings - remember "bog standard comprehensives"? - eventually led even Mr Campbell to recognise that he was too often becoming the story rather than simply relaying it, and a decision was taken in 2000 that he should stick to a behind-the-scenes role, with the grandiloquent title of "Director of Communications and Strategy".

But, like the reformed heavy drinker that he is, Mr Campbell just cannot resist reaching for the bottle - not liquor, but rather the bottle labelled "publicity". Unlike most recent wars in which Britain has been involved - the Falklands, the first Gulf conflict, Afghanistan - in which the need to fight was obvious to most people, the attack on Iraq needed to be spun to the public, so that Saddam Hussein could be presented as a clear and present danger.

Campbell was the mastermind behind that process, and - as his track record might have led one to expect - it was duly overspun. Beneath all the current hullabaloo about the BBC and its reporting lies one inescapable, damaging truth: no weapons of mass destruction or links to Osama bin Laden have been discovered in Iraq.

Mr Campbell's decision to erupt back into full public glare - branding a BBC reporter "a liar", hammering the table at a select committee meeting, striding into the Channel 4 News studio while the programme was being broadcast - were reckless actions, the product of wounded vanity and a hamfisted strategy to divert attention from the real substance of the issue: did Britain go to war on a false prospectus?

And now a man is dead, in the most horrible circumstances - a man, incidentally, who turns out not to be some lowly official, as we were led to believe, but the country's leading expert on Iraq's biological weapons. Mr Campbell says the BBC should have named him as its source. Imagine if it had, and he had killed himself the following day. The BBC would have been castigated for the most monstrous betrayal of confidentiality. Mr Campbell, as a former journalist, must recognise that.

I don't believe that anyone is "responsible" for Dr Kelly's death. The notion is distasteful and belittling of a man in extreme despair: these things are never as simple as that. But what Mr Campbell is indubitably responsible for is the Government's communications and strategy, both of which now lie in ruins. For that alone he should go, and go at once, regardless of what Lord Justice Hutton concludes in his eventual report.

If that sounds unjust, it is no harsher than the treatment Mr Campbell has meted out himself in the past, for example to Peter Mandelson, who was subsequently cleared by an official inquiry of any wrongdoing - although much good it has done him in the febrile world of assassination-by-headline in which Mr Campbell has moved so happily, and which he now excoriates.

But if Mr Campbell won't go voluntarily - and at the time of writing it doesn't look as though he will - does Mr Blair have the strength of character to fire him? Here we come back to their peculiar, increasingly unhealthy, interdependence. And we also come back to Mr Campbell's diary, which, if I were the Prime Minister, I would now feel hanging over me like a Sword of Damocles.

An aggrieved former director of communications, with a one-million-word journal for sale, the monetary value of which will be in direct proportion to how soon it can be published, is not a pretty prospect.

One longs to read it. It promises to shed a piercing light on the way Britain has been governed over the past six years. And - who knows? - perhaps somewhere in its latter pages there will be a clue as to how the Government ended up in this awful mess and how a good man lost his life. In a more healthy political system, Lord Justice Hutton would be able to subpoena it. But somehow I suspect he won't.