Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Alastair C was always a Brownite

The Independent reports that 'old hatchets are being buried' with Alastair Campbell set to play a key role in Labour's local and European election campaign.

But this is not just a question of Campbell's unwavering loyalty to the Labour tribe. At the height of the Brown bounce last summer, I had already outed AC by decoding the hidden message of his Downing Street diaries.


Fabian Review, summer 2007


Sunder Katwala reveals the real message of Alastair Campbell's diaries

The Blair years: The Alastair Campbell diaries, £25, Random House

There is a new divide at Westminster this summer. The political classes are devouring the Alastair Campbell diaries, or scouring the index at least. Only those pursuing the work of 'change' are studiously ignoring the book as the new Brown government wins plaudits for its Puritan rejection of the methods of the ancien regime.

'This book, as the title makes clear, is about Blair, not Brown', writes Campbell. It will be some years before we find out what he has cut, from his deeply felt Labour tribalism.

Though TB-GB tensions remain evident, the rivalries within the Blair camp dominate. Many of the show-stealing performances come from Peter Mandelson, whether punching Campbell (p46), resigning from government, or just having lunch: 'Even in their eating styles they were so different. GB a chomper with his jaws pouring back and forth. Peter looking with real disdain at the sandwich and then tearing off little pieces and popping them into his mouth as if they were aspirins' (p70). During the Hinduja drama of his second resignation, 'Peter sent through a fax, almost comic, saying that he could not guarantee that 'friends of Peter Mandelson' may not be out causing us trouble and pointing the finger of blame at me but he would do all in his power to ensure it did not happen' (p511).

Campbell's other vivid character sketches mostly confirm what New Labour watchers might assume. Clare Short's difficulty with collective responsibility, for example. Jacques Chirac exasperates yet amuses Blair with 'as impressive an exhibition of rudeness and anti-Americanism as he had ever seen' at a G8 summit. There is warmth towards a frequently 'Robinesque' Cook, who advises Campbell 'to look serious and sober, look straight ahead and say something unutterably pompous'. He did make me laugh, sometimes intentionally' writes Campbell.

Sometimes, over Northern Ireland and Kosovo, the diary captures the 'West Wing' style spirit of public service which Campbell intends. Cloak and dagger Tory defections generate partisan excitement. More often, the sheer grind of politics at the top and burnout dominate. The charge of trivialisation against the media sticks but so does that of a government too focused on headlines. As the mood darkens, the tragic denouement, of the Kelly affair and Hutton inquiry will doubtless polarise opinion along the usual faultlines.

For all of his loyalty to Blair, Campbell's portrait is of a PM whose instincts move steadily rightwards over time. Just about all at No 10 find Blair's ill-fated Women's Institute speech too right-wing to stomach (with the Mail's mad Paul Johnson chipping in nonsense paragraphs). Blair's response is to tell his staff that 'What gives me real edge is that I'm not as Labour as you lot'.

Party members may be reassured to hear some familiar arguments were raging within Downing Street too. The irony of Campbell's infamous 'bog standard comprehensives' line is that his biggest beef with Blair is over education. He struggles to find the energy to defend the Blairs over the Oratory, and a No 10 awayday in 2001 divides 'between what I described as the Labour camp while TB and Andrew A were on a completely different agenda'. Blair complains that Campbell sounds like Roy Hattersley on choice. (p558).

Campbell believes Blair was at his most radical in his Forces of Conservatism at the 1999 party conference speech, but that his rapid retreat under heavy Establishment fire. risked leaving his governing project undefined and his 'all things to all people' big tent not rooted in Labour values. Perhaps this, then, is Campbell's final secret. He was Blair's champion and lightning conductor. He will always be New Labour to his core. But when it comes to policy and strategy, perhaps he is a Brownite after all.

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