Party conferences, like much of British life, surf on a sea of alcohol. So to swim against the tide, on Monday I hosted a booze-free evening reception at the Labour conference in Brighton. We served “mocktails not cocktails”, as I joined with Alcohol Concern to promote two simple goals: to persuade David Cameron to make a U-turn on his U-turn on minimum unit pricing for alcohol, and to raise the number of problem drinkers getting treatment in Britain from the shameful, 6 per cent, to the merely paltry, 15 per cent. This week we take the message to Manchester, where I shall attend my first Tory conference since defecting from journalism to politics two decades ago. I am slightly dreading it but modestly hopeful that the Tories are dreading it even more.
It is constitutionally improper to feel sympathy for a spin doctor but spare a little for Emma Mitchell, who has the considerable misfortune to be mine. A couple of weeks ago she had sorted a schedule of interviews and events to promote my new novel before being asked by me to unsort them. Her task was made even tougher by the agreement not to reveal why I was going into book promo purdah, an alien concept to media bookers, and to me. Only now do I feel comfortable-ish revealing the full truth about why my first launch-week TV interview, on BBC Breakfast, suddenly became my last.
The presenters in Salford (I love Media City by the way) had suggested on air that I looked rough and, after 17 visits to my Holiday Inn bathroom the night before, I felt it. I told the story of the novel, a teenage girl’s descent into alcoholism, and got a nice tweet from a stranger, hospital doctor Gautam Mehta, saying how pleased he was that I was getting alcohol misuse on the agenda. Days later, the selfsame doctor was at my bedside in London’s Royal Free hospital, asking me how I had managed to keep going for so long with such high levels of infection, and telling me that the tests showed I had rather severe shigella sonnei, aka dysentery. Small world!
Actually, no, very big world; the doctors said I must have picked this up overseas. I challenged the inherent racism – technically, a backside-scratching fruit salad mixer in an NW3 eatery is just as capable of passing on the disease as a street dweller in Africa. Still, I had to list all the places I had travelled to in the past few months and, of the world’s continents, only Antarctica didn’t figure. Perhaps I should listen to my mum and slow down after all. The doctors decided, on balance, that the source was probably Albania. This was the country I had visited most often, enough for me to have gone native and insist that, “No no no, the water is pristine, the people are clean, the food positively Parisian, I am sure it was that hot dog I had in Melbourne.”
I have become defensive about Albania since advising the country’s Socialist party (think New Labour Balkans branch) on its election campaign. I heard plenty of the stereotypes before going there but working with leader Edi Rama and his team has been as much fun as I have had in politics since Peter Mandelson and I used to argue about what the pledges for Tony Blair’s first term in office should be and whether Tony should wear a tie. Today Edi is prime minister, having won a landslide in June with his “renaissance” message, and this week he was busy strutting his stuff at the UN. An artist, and surely the first PM to have pet tortoises plodding around his office, he has promised to build a statue of me in Tirana as reward for my work, and has done an early design – me, kilted on a horse, sword in one hand, iPhone in the other. I fear this statue promise is the Albanian equivalent of the commitment Tony Blair used to make to visit Burnley Football Club if I helped him win. (We got the Queen and Prince Charles there but never TB.)
When I worked for TB, party conference always started with the leader’s interview with David Frost, whose death I still can’t quite believe. I was touched that my partner Fiona and I were invited to the small private funeral, honouring a friendship that began when I was a reporter on the Mirror. I loved seeing all the photos of his great interviews at the house afterwards, especially the one of David, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in the first joint PM-presidential interview, an event that David described in my diaries as “orgasmic”. The interviews with another former US president, Richard Nixon, put him in a league of his own, and he loved being in that league. I only once had to tell him to shut up, when he and his wife Carina took Fiona and me to the Frost/Nixon play; he had seen it so often he was reciting the lines along with actor Michael Sheen. At our last “jolly breakfast”, shortly before the summer break, he said: “You know what I love, Big Al? The alphabet. You know why? Because F comes before N. Nobody ever says ‘Nixon/Frost’, do they?” Cue cigar-chomp and chuckle. What a man, what a life.
In Brighton I continued my long-running argument with Ed Miliband and co that they should better rebut the coalition’s “mess we inherited” mantra. When, earlier this year, the LSE Growth Commission painted a broadly positive picture of Labour’s economic record, they cited three main reasons: investment in education; competition policy; and immigration. I was glad to hear Ed speak up for immigration, and want to close by thanking the British, Irish, French, Filipino, Cameroonian, Polish, Sierra Leonese, Kosovan, Ethiopian, Singaporean, Congolese and German doctors, nurses, chemists, paramedics, students, lab testers, cleaners and porters who helped me get better; and to apologise, to all the above, that we have a government constantly saying what a rubbish service you provide and how their hedge fund mates would do it so much better.
Alastair Campbell’s latest novel ‘My Name Is ...’ is published by Hutchinson, £18.99