Profile: Spinning into control

Profile: Alastair Campbell
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The Independent Culture
SOME CALL him the deputy prime minister, a title that leaves John Prescott, the official holder of the title, out in the cold. Others insist that even the deputy moniker is too modest. After all, Tony Blair defers to him on many important issues. One thing, however, none of the delegates to next week's Labour party conference in Bournemouth would disagree with: for better or worse, Alastair Campbell, press secretary to the Prime Minister, determines not just the way that we perceive the conference but also - uniquely - the conference agenda itself.

For the first time, the spokesman is the message. Press secretaries to previous prime ministers have been trusted lieutenants. Bernard Ingham became famous as Margaret Thatcher's loyal Rottweiler who would occasionally toss a wounded minister - anonymously, of course - to the hungry lobby dogs. Ingham was regarded as a powerful character because Thatcher kept him informed, and he was on her wavelength. But Campbell is in a different league. He is part of the political process itself.

Ever since Blair begged him to take the job in 1994, after the death of John Smith and Blair's succession to the leadership, he has been more than just his master's voice. Rather, he is his master's prompt. When Blair is giving a television interview, Campbell is in eyeline behind the interviewer to keep things on the straight and narrow. Even off-camera, Blair has on occasion refused to take further questions until his chief political comfort blanket is back in the room.

Campbell, along with Blair, Gordon Brown, and Peter Mandelson, is a key member of the quartet that created the New Labour project. When Blair pulls off a surprise coup - most famously, when he stunned conference in 1994 by cheerily proposing the abolition of Clause Four, previous holy grail of Labour's constitution on nationalisation - Campbell's duties begin much earlier than selling the new package to the TV cameras. It was he who helped develop the idea of abolishing Clause Four, and, crucially to get John Prescott's support as a prelude to smuggling the idea past a reluctant conference. He is far closer to Tony Blair than most ministers. He is capable of rebuking a minister forcefully and directly.

The close connection with Downing Street is reinforced by the fact that Campbell's partner of two decades, Fiona Millar, works as part-time press adviser to Cherie Blair, so that the his-and-hers package is complete.

Campbell's background and upbringing did not suggest that Labour politics would be his natural stamping ground. He grew up in Keighley in Herriot country in North Yorkshire, where his father Donald was a Scottish vet (Alf Wight, the real James Herriot, was an acquaintance). Politics was not a dominant part of the landscape. Donald Campbell was a member of the Conservative Club, but, it seems, as much for social as political reasons. One of Campbell's early passions was for Burnley FC, which he still follows with considerable dedication: he failed to attend Peter Mandelson's 40th birthday bash, for example, pleading a prior engagement at a Burnley home game. The family moved to Leicester in 1969, where Campbell attended a Leicester grammar school. From there, he won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied French and German.

His study of French indirectly provided him with his first journalistic experience - although still strictly non-political. He became a prolific writer for the pornography-cum-psychology journal, Forum. In what seems to have been a blend of fact and fiction (at the time, he insisted that it was pure fact; now, he insists it was pure fantasy), he threw light on his time as an English teacher and self-described Riviera Gigolo, describing events such as "the lady lecturer who, in return for a handful of orgasms, helped me to write my thesis on Racine and Corneille". Fact or fiction, his Forum columns helped keep him in pocket. Another source of income was playing the bagpipes, which his father had taught him and which he still plays to this day. "Busking with Bagpipes" was the title of another saucy Forum column.

From the salaciousness of Forum he moved to more mainstream journalism. It was on the Mirror Group training course that he met Millar, a fellow- trainee - love at first sight, according to those who knew them then. Some of his earliest successes in spin-doctoring date from then - on behalf of a Conservative councillor in Tavistock, Robin Fenner, whose scheme for recycling caught Campbell's eye. Campbell offered to be his press officer - and raised his profile with such success that Fenner was invited to lecture in the United States. Fenner insists that he himself was only "the mouthpiece: [Campbell] was planting the ideas".

He joined The Mirror, and from there went as news editor to the newly- launched Sunday Today. But the stresses were piling up. In 1986 he suffered a breakdown, partly connected with his confessed heavy drinking, which many assumed spelt the end for him professionally. In reality, the end of the breakdown marked just the beginning of his true rise to power. At the funeral of his close friend John Merritt, a respected Observer journalist, Campbell told of how Merritt had visited him after his breakdown, carrying a handful of marbles: "Here are your marbles back. Don't lose them again." He didn't. Campbell gave up alcohol, and threw himself back into his work.

Increasingly, work meant closeness to the heart of Labour power. He became extraordinarily close to both Neil and Glenys Kinnock. He was adviser and Sunday Mirror columnist rolled into one: it was unthinkable that anything critical of the Labour leader would appear under his byline. The two families went on holiday together. In retrospect, the relationship with the Kinnocks was a kind of dry run for his relationship with the Blairs - just as Kinnock's candidacy, with its attempted modernisation of the Labour Party, was a dry run for Blair's final storming of Downing Street in 1997. Even the failure of the Kinnock campaign in 1992 paved the way directly for an important success in 1997 that was almost entirely Campbell's own doing. In 1992, The Sun, which campaigned relentlessly against Kinnock, proudly boasted: "It was the Sun wot won it." Campbell was determined that that pattern should not be repeated. From 1994 onwards he assiduously wooed The Sun - and repeatedly sidelined his old employer, The Mirror, whose loyalty to Labour was not in question and therefore counted for less.

Campbell is ruthless in his strategy - picking up and dropping again, as necessary. The only argument is over whether such ruthlessness is gratuitous, or whether the bullying is a necessary means to an end. Some argue that he does not really care about politics at all. "It's all about fancy footwork," says one acquaintance. Another says: "There's no evidence that he's ever thought deeply about politics. You're not looking at a person with hidden depths. What you see is what you get." Others argue that his core views are as strongly felt as those of his boss. Although clearly mesmerised by power, he is no simple yes-man. Fiercely loyal on the outside, he his not slow to argue with his bosses when he disagrees on a point of principle.

On education, he and Millar - who have three young children - are more unbending than the Blairs. When Harriet Harman sent her children to a grammar school, he was apoplectic. The Blairs' own decision to send Euan to the Oratory, several miles from their Islington home, was almost equally unpopular. As one acquaintance notes: "He can't bear Harriet, because of that. And they [Campbell and Millar] were definitely pissed off about Tony."

Campbell's power means that a new job description had to be created. All previous press secretaries were civil servants, and thus prohibited from involvement in party political work. For Campbell, this would not do at all. Campbell became an "adviser" to get round that problem. But that meant he was no longer a civil servant, so he could no longer take executive action. He thus became a civil servant as well, to get round that problem. Special instant legislation was required for this little piece of political legerdemain.

Today, he clearly adores the unique power that attaches to his post. Nor, you suspect, does he mind the epithet "thuggish" being attached to him. "Wanker" and "crap" give an idea of the general tone of his retorts to journalists who ask questions that he does not want to answer. Within the context of the lobby, the laddishness has a give-and-take element: if you are verbally punched, you punch back. But the threats are always dangling. One political editor recalls receiving a series of phone calls where Campbell assured him that if his paper ran with an intended front page story, he would never get to interview the Prime Minister again; he did, and he did. In the words of Peter Oborne, Express columnist and author of a forthcoming biography of Campbell (Alastair Campbell: New Labour and the Rise of the Media Class): "He despises the parliamentary lobby, but he knows how to play it like a violin. It has not yet found a way of playing back."

Campbell sits in on Cabinet discussions, putting him at the heart of government. Many of those sitting around the table distrust that power, which he is happy to use against them and which many would happily use against him. Few can quite come to terms with this bundle of contradictions, whose politics remain opaque, even now.

Since his time at Caius College, Cambridge (perhaps even before) he has been contemptuous of privilege and the privileged; and yet, he was good friends with the late Alan Clark, the very embodiment of old-fashioned snobbery. He and Millar have cut friends dead for abandoning local state schools; and yet his boss shipped his children out of the borough in order to get them into a better school. His family is a rock of stability, making an appearance in his Who's Who list of recreations, alongside Burnley FC and the bagpipes. Beyond that, however, few - including, perhaps, Campbell himself - are sure what makes him tick. Is he primarily driven by the desire to make society better - or is he excited, above all, by power for its own sake?

His critics, including the authors of yet another new biography, On Message, describe him as an "unelected apparatchik". That is technically true. And yet, it was the elected Prime Minister who prevailed upon him to do the job. (Blair visited Campbell on holiday in France, to persuade him to sign on the dotted line. There was a tussle-of-love between Kinnock, by now a European Commissioner in Brussels - who wanted to employ Campbell as his chef de cabinet - and Blair.) Just as we get the leaders we deserve, we probably get the spokesmen we deserve. Endless complaints about Campbell's thuggishness reflect as badly on the lobby journalists surrounding him as they do on Campbell himself. As one lobby journalist points out: "The lobby is too dependent on spin-doctors. I think more people should tell them to get lost."

Some years ago, in a small West Country court such as Campbell reported on in his early career, an accused man explained why he had run away even after the police demanded that he stop. "It's my job to run away," he answered. "It's their job to catch me." It is the spokesman's job to spin; it is the media's job to resist being spun. Maybe the media should not complain so much. They should just hit back.

Life Story

Born: 25 May 1957, Keighley, Yorkshire

Family: Father, Donald, a vet. Mother, Elizabeth (Tony Blair's comment on meeting her: "You can't be Alastair Campbell's mother. You're nice.")

Education: City of Leicester Boys' School; Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge

Journalistic career: Mirror Group training scheme, 1980-82; reporter, The Mirror and Sunday Mirror, Today and Sunday Today, 1982-87; political editor and columnist, The Mirror and Sunday Mirror, 1987-93; columnist, Today, 1993-95

Political career: Press adviser to Conservative councillor in Tavistock, 1980; unofficial press adviser to Neil Kinnock, Labour leader, 1987-92; press secretary to Tony Blair from 1994

Special talents: Bagpipe player, a skill learnt from his father, which later helped him to busk his way around Europe in a kilt

Additional post: President, Keighley branch of the Burnley Football Supporters' Association Partner: Fiona Millar, another Mirror Group trainee, now part-time press adviser to Cherie Blair

Children: Two sons and a daughter, aged 11, 10 and five

He says (in a spoof Queen's Speech): "My Government is just hoping that if the style is a bit different, nobody will notice the Substance (Lack of) Bill."

They say: "He despises the parliamentary lobby, but plays it like a violin." (Peter Oborne, Campbell's biographer.)

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