The Burden of Power: countdown to Iraq, By Alastair Campbell

Continuing confessions of a spin doctor - and the haunting spectre of suicide
  • @andymcsmith

This is Part Four of a story longer than the adventures of Harry Potter. The third volume of diaries ended as the narrator's plans were disrupted by the horror of 11 September 2001. This one takes the Alastair Campbell story through the Iraq war and the death of Dr David Kelly, up to the end of his time in Downing Street. At the bottom of the final page there is a promise to the indefatigable of yet more.

Iraq is the main story-line, but with a multitude of subplots, including the ongoing account of the dysfunctional marriage between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. By January 2003, it had seemingly reached the final break-up, when Blair informed Campbell: "I'm going to sack him. I've come to the settled view that he has to go". But on it went. "He basically treats me like shit," Blair protested later, yet he still could not bring himself to sue for divorce.

The Diaries are also a revelation on how the wheels of government can be clogged by trivia, particularly where bad publicity threatens. On page 96, Campbell is wondering why Steve Byers, the Transport Secretary, had appointed the former BBC Martin Sixsmith as his department's head of communications. Byers thought Alastair had agreed the appointment, but discovered that his staff had thought that when he said "ask Alastair" he meant "ask Alistair" - and Darling though Sixsmith would be OK. By page 169, they think that they have Sixsmith's resignation, but he is saying he has not resigned. At page 175, Blair is personally involved. On page 239, after six months, Sixsmith has gone but there is an argument over his pay-off, still involving the PM.

While the endless stream of small crises filled their daily lives, the cast was drawn stage by stage into the greater drama of the Iraq war. The story the Diaries tell is pretty much as we thought it was: by the afternoon of 11 September, Blair was fretting that American public opinion would push George W Bush into "doing something irresponsible" and stressing that the US must be reassured that they had friends and allies in Europe. That was a course from which Blair never wavered.

In September 2002, he told the Cabinet bluntly: "I'm not going to let the US go unilateral. It would be wrong, and this way I get to influence them." Blair said this before he knew whether he could get a UN mandate, Cabinet or Parliament's support for the war, or even whether the government's own law officers were satisfied that invading Iraq was permitted under international law. It is widely suspected that Blair and Bush sealed a deal during a visit to the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002 – US support for Britain's diplomatic initiative in the UN in return for the promise of British participation in the war.

But on this visit the Diaries are exasperating uninformative, almost as if something has been edited out. There is a detailed account of a conversation with an American woman in a gym in Texas, and we are told how Campbell and Bush discussed drink problems – but no record that anyone talked politics.

Yet by September, Blair had made a sufficient impression on the US President for him to tell Campbell: "I don't want it on the record, and with apology for the mixed audience, but your guy's got balls." How Bush came to this conclusion we can only surmise. Finally comes the grim story of the weapons inspector, Dr David Kelly. The word "tragedy" is widely misused to mean a meaningless accident that befalls an innocent victim rather than a catastrophe that arises from a person's character. Dr Kelly's suicide was tragedy in the true sense except to wacky people who think he was murdered. What we did not know until the Diaries was how nearly that tragedy was followed by another.

The Kelly affair originated at the very time the Americans were starting to say that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and, coincidentally, Campbell had decided to quit his job and start anew. He is an obsessive. This volume contains around 280,000 words covering less than two years. That is an average of nearly 400 words every day, by someone with a relentlessly demanding job. One passage reveals yet another argument with the long-suffering mother of his children, Fiona Millar, at the height of the Kelly saga. "I said surely you can understand the pressure I'm under... She said a lot of was of my own making because I went from one obsession to another."

When Campbell learned that Lord Hutton had decided to make him surrender his diaries to the inquiry into Kelly's suicide, he was thrown into despair because he could not remember what was in them, many passages having been written at times of emotional strain. He was on holiday in France, and set off by car to collect the diaries after Downing Street dispatched them by air. He wondered if he had said goodbye to his family for the last time, "whether what I discovered on reading my own diary would be so awful that I would want to top myself." The idea of suicide re-entered his head several times on that journey. One suicide, and one near-suicide – because someone about whom so much had been said and written became gripped by a mission to rebut one radio broadcast and one article by one journalist he did not like. If only he had let it go, we might never have heard of Dr David Kelly, who would still be working as a weapons inspector. And volume four of the Diaries would be 100 pages shorter.