Whitehall's warlord

Alastair Campbell's battle with the BBC set off a chain of events that has brought public life into disrepute. His was the nasty face of modern politics, says Martin Bell
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The Independent Online

Forty-six is an early age to be reading one's own obituaries, but that's what Alastair Campbell was able to do at the end of another Hutton-heavy week. A few have settled old scores (itself a Campbell speciality), but most of them gave credit where credit was due. Here was a man who, together with another obsessive, Peter Mandelson, learnt the lessons of previous Labour defeats and engineered two unprecedented landslide victories for a previously unelectable party. A man who stood at Tony Blair's right hand for nine years, and who exercised a power unknown and unsought by previous Downing Street press secretaries. Only Bernard Ingham, for Margaret Thatcher, had anything like the same profile. But Ingham was a civil servant who had once worked for Tony Benn and who observed the traditional distinction between party and government. Campbell was different. We shall not, and for the sake of our democracy should not, see his like again. Who knows? His departure has created a vacuum, which may at best be filled by a return to the collective responsibility of cabinet government.

By his own account, Campbell is a driven man. He served the Prime Minister loyally and fiercely - too fiercely, in the end, for the Prime Minister's good. There is no doubt that he wanted to leave last April, if not before. Unusually for a political insider, his wish to spend more time with his family was not a euphemism for jumping before he was pushed. But it was against his every instinct to leave Downing Street at a moment when the Labour government was facing its gravest crisis in more than six years in office. He did so because the crisis - like the war that precipitated it - was discretionary. It didn't have to happen. It was, to a great extent, a storm of his making.

Our political Lucifers - and again the comparison with Mandelson is apt - shine brightly in the firmament for a while, but fall to earth for lack of the saving grace of common sense. More terrestrial politicians, such as John Prescott, have it. That is why he survives and they don't.

If Alastair Campbell had been a military commander, he would have conducted his campaigns without regard to the number of casualties. He would have been a take-that-hill and storm-that-trench kind of leader. I had a glimpse of this when I fell accidentally into politics in April 1997 and was the target of a notorious ambush on Knutsford Heath by Neil and Christine Hamilton. In an overnight fax, he urged me to challenge my adversaries to a rematch on the heath the next day. Since I was not in his chain of command and knew more about ambushes than he did, I was able to decline the suggestion without risk of court martial. I lived to fight another day, but caught an early whiff of his belligerence.

The next time we met was after the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. The would-be soldier of the information war had been dismayed by press coverage of the bombing campaign and lent his skills to reinforcing the media operation at Nato headquarters. When it was over, he travelled to Pristina with Tony Blair and revelled in the Prime Minister's reception as Kosovo's liberator. Although hardly a dangerous assignment, it was the closest Mr Campbell had ever come to a war zone. In a revealing speech at the Royal United Services Institute afterwards, he set out his counter-strike theory of press relations: "In the face of the aggressive media, you sometimes need aggression in return."

He attacked the media "sneer squad" and couldn't resist a sneer of his own in reply: "The day of the daredevil reporter who refuses to see the obstacles to getting the truth, and seeing it with his or her own eyes, seems to have died."

To anyone who knows the reality of warfare in these dangerous times, that was a dumb, unforgivable remark. There are risks to war reporting beyond the knowledge of a laptop bombardier or armchair strategist. What could he possibly have known of the sort of courage it takes to cross a front line through unmapped minefields and ambushes beyond? I marked him down from that point on as a sort of Whitehall warlord. I believe that is what he was.

In all his years of Downing Street service, Alastair Campbell is proudest of his pro-active defence of Tony Blair's expeditionary wars. (Who would have thought, in the brave new world of New Labour's election in 1997, that there would be one such war, let alone three?) The case for the first, in Kosovo, was made easier by the televised images of human distress as hundreds of thousands of Albanians were driven from their homes. The case for the second, in Afghanistan, was underpinned by public outrage at the attack on the World Trade Centre. The case for the third, in Iraq this year, was never adequately made at all. It still hasn't been made. It strained Mr Campbell's skills to the breaking point. It was simply a war too far.

The new regime in Downing Street would be wise to be more relaxed in its traffic with the media than the old one. The peculiar animal that is the British press will neither be tamed by sticks nor tempted by carrots. There is nothing the Prime Minister can do that will win him the support of the Daily Mail. But there is also nothing he can do, short of the prospect of electoral defeat, that will lose him the support of The Times and The Sun. Rupert Murdoch is the most predictable press baron ever. He has never let his commercial interests take second place to anything. It has been sad, but not surprising, to see them reflected in his papers' coverage of the Hutton inquiry.

We live, it seems, in a world of one-man wars. The war in Iraq was the Prime Minister's. The side-war with the BBC was Alastair Campbell's. In waging it, he did some damage to the BBC, but more to the Government and to the Prime Minister. Tony Blair wanted to move on. Campbell didn't. So he set in motion a train of events that have clouded his departure, overshadowed his achievements and brought our public life into disrepute. No wonder voters are alienated. A changing of the guard at Downing Street will not be enough to win back their trust. A change in the culture of politics must go with it.

The presentation of the September dossier, for which Campbell was responsible, became in the end a tragic and avoidable matter of life and death. I know almost no one, outside the feverish precincts of Westminster, who is not troubled that the war was justified by an exaggeration of the threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. I know no one at all who is not appalled by the treatment of Dr Kelly. It indicates a nastiness in our public life that, unless corrected, will prove as damaging to this government as sleaze was to the last.