Hutchinson £25 (774pp) £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Alastair Campbell Diaries, Volume 1: Prelude to Power by Alastair Campbell
Blood on the tracks to the summit
Friday 18 June 2010
Nearly 20 years ago, the then Prime Minister, John Major, was undergoing a grilling, humiliating television interview when there was a cri de coeur in the Commons office of the Daily Mirror, where I then worked. "Why do they do it?" a voice exclaimed. Why indeed? The speaker was the Mirror's political editor, Alastair Campbell, whose diaries are a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of entering the hellish life of high-pressure politics.
When Campbell was invited by Tony Blair to be his personal spin doctor, in summer 1994, the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock advised him, as a friend, not to do it, because it would wreck his family life and because "you'll hate the crap, the detail, the wankers you have to be nice to." Despite that advice, he was lured into being where the action was, a career change that brought wealth and fame, but precious little by way of job satisfaction to judge by the long chronicle of exasperation, anger, depression and intermittent moments of exultation that make up the first volume of his unabridged diary.
This book is unbelievably long. In the abridged version of Campbell's diaries, published two years ago, it takes 180 pages to get from May 1994 to May 1997, which was quite enough. Here the same period fills 770 pages. This is only the first of four volumes. The complete work will be over twice the length of War and Peace.
And it is unrelentingly grim. It is not the quality of the writing that's the problem: Campbell writes very well, as a trained tabloid journalist. It is the life that he chose to lead that comes over as scarcely bearable – although it is possible that the diaries exaggerate the awfulness because he was apparently writing them as a form of therapy, to work off each day's tension. He thereby created a new form of misery memoir, a chronicle of the frustrations of ambition achieved.
Political diaries that are fun to read are written by people who were never very important, such as Alan Clark, Gyles Brandreth or Chris Mullin - those who faffed around on the edges of power trying to see what was happening inside. But Campbell was never anywhere but in the epicentre of political power, where life is an endless round of meetings, crises, clashes of egos, stress and sleep deprivation.
Domestic life, as described here, was a sequence of rows with his long-suffering partner, Fiona Millar, who emerges as one of the unsung heroines of the drama. They row because she either trying to induce him to have a family life, or defending a political principle, such as comprehensive education, against Labour's rightward drift.
The first day of 1995, Campbell's first full year in the job, was a Sunday. "Woke up early, anxious about the DB (David Blunkett) situation," is the year's first written observation. "Fiona was determined I get some rest, so unplugged all the phones upstairs. I just lay there listening to them ring in the rest of the house so got up to begin another crap day."
Several times, the stress was so awful that Campbell feared he was on the edge of another nervous breakdown, like the one he suffered in 1986. "On days like today, dead days," he recorded on a Sunday in March 1996, "every single thing, getting into bed, getting dressed, putting on a sock, brushing teeth, starting the car, answering a phone, saying hello, becomes a huge challenge. You have to summon the energy and strength to do it and when it's done you wonder if it was worth it."
Four weeks earlier, Fiona had persuaded him to try acupuncture, but he had a terror of needles that almost caused him to pass out. At another point, he needed medical treatment because the stress had caused him to start "crapping blood." Crapping blood is not a bad metaphor for the job he had undertaken.
He was the human shield between a band of ego-driven politicians and a voracious 24-hour news media. He was working for a boss so eternally fretful about presentation that there was an occasion when Blair rang Campbell at 5am, worrying that an answer he had given in a BBC interview had not quite hit the right tone.
Yet for all his constant fretting, Blair comes across as saner than most others at the top of the Labour Party. Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson and Clare Short storm through the pages, throwing tantrums because they are not getting their way. Robin Cook manoeuvres slyly for position.
In the entry for 1 August 1996, Blair and Campbell discussed the lie of the land as they prepare to set off for what are laughingly called their holidays. Their conclusions - "JP was mega offside again. Peter was out of control. GB was being a pain. RC was onside only because the other two were offside. Charlie W (Whelan) was causing trouble. The Shadow Cabinet middle order were not adding much, and some of them did absolutely fuck all unless asked. TB said the last few days have been kindergarten politics..."
An interesting question is what these diaries will say about politics to anyone who reads them a decade or so hence, when the partisan passions roused by the Blair-Brown years have cooled. They will, I suspect, prompt questions about whether this is a sane way to run a country; whether democratically elected leaders and their advisers should ever be expected to live like this. In the meantime, someone should rewrite that Noel Coward song, giving it a new refrain: "Don't let your son be a spin doctor, Mrs Worthington."
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