Wednesday 14 April 2010

Why Cameron is heir to Alastair Campbell

As the political nation prepares the popcorn for Britain’s first ever leaders’ election debate, Alastair Campbell has been talking to Mary Riddell for her Fabian Review interview about his role in Labour’s campaign and how he’s approached playing David Cameron in Gordon Brown’s debate prep:

Mr Campbell is back. That Gordon Brown is still in this election with a prayer of victory is due, in part, to Labour’s magus of electioneering. What, exactly, is he doing at No 10? “I’ve been helping Gordon with PMQs. And I’ve been involved in the [pre-election leaders’] debate”. Mr Campbell’s role is to play David Cameron, a task about which he appears diffident. “It’s not just me. Loads of people do it.” Such as? “Douglas Alexander,” he says, when pressed.

And what does drilling Mr Brown involve? “He’s got the factual stuff in his head. But this is a very different format from PMQs. It’s television, it’s historic, and the viewing figures are going to be huge. The rules make it quite an odd event – no applause and strict on timings, so it’s about getting used to that format. I just get at him the whole time, the way that Cameron would.”

And so perhaps David Cameron will be not so much ‘heir to Blair’ as ‘heir to Alastair Campbell’ tomorrow night.

Indeed, that is an accolade which the ex-Labour communications supremo has grudgingly granted to a political opponent whose polished communication skills he respects, having written in The Times of the Tory leadership debate in 2005 that:

“I study Mr Cameron and I wonder if our link has less to do with kith and kin and more to do with the fact that we are both basically spin- doctors.

It has been said that David Cameron is the new Tony Blair. But watching Mr Cameron trying to soundbite his way through the debate, it was clear that Mr Cameron is not remotely in Mr Blair’s league.

Far from being the new Blair, he may actually be the new Alastair Campbell.”

Back in Fabian Review, Campbell suggests that Nick Clegg’s LibDem team can’t believe their luck at the equal status they will have tomorrow night:

“And then you’ve got the complication of Clegg,” he says, perhaps a touch dismissively. “It’s a massive opportunity for him.”

Too massive? “When we were negotiating the TV debates that never happened, back in 1997, I don’t think it was ever thought, even by the Lib Dems, that the Lib Dems would have equal billing.”

Campbell is also frank about not being able to call the election result. The bullish Labour tribalist acknowledges the Tories went into the campaign ahead – and knows too that Labour’s best chance lies in fighting back as the feisty underdogs:

Perhaps he fears that the game is up. For the first time, he admits, he has no idea what this election will bring. “I honestly can’t call it. In 1992, I didn’t think we were going to win. Deep down, I didn’t. In pretty much every campaign, I’ve called it right. I got 1997 wrong in terms of the majority. I didn’t think it would be as big as that. Ditto 2001 and 2005, I got about right. This one I genuinely can’t call. It could be a Labour win, it could be a hung Parliament, it could be a Tory win. It could be any of those three, and the debates are going to be very important.”

Read the whole interview here.

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