The Burden of Power: Countdown to Iraq, by Alastair Campbell, Hutchinson, RRP£25, 724 pages
My first thought in picking up this final volume (the last of four hefty tomes) of Alastair Campbell’s Downing Street diaries was: how much more? Tony Blair left Number 10 only five years ago yet vast forests have already been felled in chronicling his decade in Downing Street.
So this latest offering is for aficionados. Or do I mean obsessives? It is hard to imagine The Burden of Power flying off the shelves. There is, though, a selling point. Memoirs and the rest are written through the self-justifying lens of hindsight. Campbell’s contemporaneous jottings take the reader behind the grand sweep to capture the texture and grit of events as they were lived during the most tumultuous years of Blair’s premiership.
The entries cover the period from 9/11 – an event that briefly cast Blair as a global statesman – to the chaotic aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. For most of this two-year period, the prime minister’s communications director was almost always angry and often depressed. By the time he quit in August 2003 after nearly 10 years at the centre of the New Labour project, Campbell really had had enough. The great manipulator – oh-so-delicate hacks forever complained he was a foul-mouthed bully – had come to despise his media clients. “I just wanted to get out, get home.”
Those looking for new revelations or startling insights about the Iraq war or about Blair’s battles with his jealous chancellor Gordon Brown will be disappointed. This ground has been too well tilled in an endless procession of public inquiries and in the accounts of Blair and others.
A former tabloid journalist, Campbell lays no claim to be a stylist in the manner of more celebrated diarists. The prose is at best plain. Thus he records the public outcry over the US’s incarceration of al-Qaeda supporters: “Guantánamo was running big and bad and we were not in shape to deal with it.” Campbell substitutes rawness and immediacy for elegance. The reader, of course, has no idea of what, and how much, has been edited out of the published version but Campbell does enough to betray his own tortured state of mind and the weaknesses of his master to offer assurance that this is not a wholly expurgated account of events.
Afghanistan, and then Iraq, are at the centre. The secret discussions with George W Bush, the intelligence dossiers, the death of the weapons inspector David Kelly will doubtless continue to excite the conspiracy theorists. But the story about why Blair went to war alongside Bush is actually quite straightforward.
The prime minister did think that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, and that the events of 9/11 had changed the calculus of risk for the west. He thought it the duty of a British prime minister to stand alongside the US. Call it hubris or vainglory but, basking in the success of intervention in Kosovo, he also thought getting rid of Saddam “the right thing to do”. I recently heard one of Blair’s closest friends remark that the then prime minister thought this would be his “Falklands moment”. There was probably something of that too.
Campbell tells us little new either about the war between Downing Street neighbours. Unsurprisingly, the “insanely jealous” Brown is cast as the aggressor in his constant efforts to shoehorn Blair out of Number 10. Campbell adds vivid colour to the chancellor’s sulks and rages and his refusal to share information with Blair: “It did sometimes feel like there were two governments.” This is scarcely virgin territory. Brown’s determination to thwart Blair’s ambitions to join the euro and to derail his efforts to modernise public services have been well recorded. So, too, his resolve to destroy along the way potential leadership rivals. Yet Campbell’s observations underscore just how much damage the feud inflicted on the government’s domestic policymaking.
There are some frankly tedious reflections on the psychodramas within Blair’s inner circle, including those of the author. A lengthy account of a lunch with Peter Mandelson, at which Brown is the main topic of conversation, leaves the reader flinching at all the tortured emotion.
There are some good vignettes. On the eve of the Iraq war, when it looks as if Blair might lose the vote in parliament, Bush promises to send a message to Iain Duncan Smith’s Conservative opposition. The president will tell the Tories that if they try to unseat his good friend Blair, then “we will get rid of them”. If necessary, Bush said, he would speak to “Iain Duncan Baker [sic]” himself.
The Tories were duly supportive. Elsewhere, though, hear Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, letting fly at Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the war-mongers around the US president. Colin Powell had told him that some of the people around Bush could not care “two fucks” about the British and that went for Blair as much as anyone else.
It’s the inadvertent insights wrapped up in these accounts of the daily maelstrom that are the most revealing. New Labour was supposed to be the master of spin but what emerges is a Downing Street forever in thrall to the media. The judgment that it had to feed the beast of 24-hour rolling news often left the government running to stand still. The constant rows and rebuttals reinforced the idea that the government was all about spin. Campbell made the media feel more important than it was.
Then there is the big story. The diaries start with the conviction in Number 10 that 9/11 provides an opportunity for Britain to play Greece to America’s Rome. Blair will keep Bush on the multilateral straight and narrow. They end with the harsh reality. The US appreciates support from its old ally but, when push comes to shove, the White House makes up its own mind. That’s something Blair learnt the hard way.
Philip Stephens is the FT’s chief political commentator