Prelude to Power: The Alastair Campbell Diaries Volume I, by Alastair Campbell, Hutchinson RRP£25, 774 pages
The very first line of Alastair Campbell’s latest batch of political diaries gives a clue of what is in store: “Up at 4.15 and off to the BBC to review the papers.”
Such was Campbell’s obsession with the media that he was prepared to rise before dawn to pick through the papers for breakfast television. It was an obsession which, although initially of great value to Tony Blair, was ultimately a political liability.
Campbell was a product of his time. When Tony Blair turned to the tabloid political commentator to become his media chief in 1994, the newly crowned Labour leader faced a wall of visceral hostility from most of Fleet Street.
In 1992, The Sun claimed to have successfully stopped the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock from becoming prime minister. By 1997, thanks partly to Campbell’s contacts, guile and tireless work, the press had been tamed. But the effort took its toll. Prone to depression and obsessed about his work, Campbell came to despise the trade in which he used to work as well as many of the colleagues with whom he used to drink in the press bar.
That process ultimately led to his corrosive feud with the BBC over its reporting of the Iraq war. Dr David Kelly, a government “whistleblower”, took his life after being exposed and Campbell finally left Blair’s side in 2003. Campbell’s mission to control the press comes pouring out through the pages of Prelude to Power, his account of Tony Blair’s rise to power from his election as Labour leader in 1994 to the flag-waving scenes in Downing Street three years later.
Readers might feel they have read this before and it is possible they have – if they bought Campbell’s edited diaries, The Blair Years, published in 2007. Now he is publishing – in six monthly instalments – the unexpurgated diaries, with extensive new material, including reports of the discussions that led to Blair, not Gordon Brown, becoming Labour leader in 1997.
But those hoping for major new revelations on the most extensively reported feud in British politics for a generation are likely to be disappointed. There is more graphic detail of Brown’s extensive sulks, his refusal to tell Blair what he was doing, indeed plenty of evidence to confirm the view of Blairites that the new Labour leader should have ditched his rival years ago. But no killer fact. On the famous dinner at London restaurant Granita, during which Brown agreed to stand aside, Campbell recounts: “TB called first thing. He said the dinner had gone fine.” Perhaps not, as the author notes that GB had “driven a hard bargain along the way”. But readers may find off-putting the fact that many entries begin with a truncated press review of the kind Campbell used to deliver on the breakfast television sofa, reflecting New Labour’s fixation on the messenger: “The press just about bought our line.”
As a junior FT political reporter, I wrote what I hoped was an amusing short story noting that Blair had flattened his hairstyle (on the advice of image-makers) to make him more attractive to women voters. “The phone went early and I knew it would be TB and I knew it would be about the hair,” Campbell writes. Campbell issued a press release describing the episode as “the blackest day in the history of FT journalism”, before realising this slight over-reaction helped to fuel the story. His determination to control the message became all-consuming.
By the time of Labour’s greatest triumph in May 1997, he felt ominously flat. “I said it was probably the anti-climax and the worries about the future.” David Cameron insists he has learnt from this: “We are not going to sit in the office looking at 24-hour news channels blaring out, shouting at the headlines,” he remarked. We will see.
George Parker is the FT’s political editor