Alastair Campbell: From the Riviera gigolo to No 10's Burnley bruiser

He came through alcoholism and a nervous collapse to occupy a position of power unparalleled for an unelected adviser. Jo Dillon on the highs and lows of PM's right-hand man
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The Independent Online

He's been called a lot of things in his time, not all of them printable. But Alastair Campbell has progressed from the "Riviera gigolo" to "the Burnley bruiser" and finally to "the real Deputy Prime Minister".

Some might say, after Oscar Wilde, that it's better to be talked about than not to be talked about. But not for a spin-doctor. And so when Mr Campbell, not for the first time, broke the cardinal rule of his trade and himself became the story in the row over Dr David Kelly, the BBC and the "sexed up" dossier, the snarl to Tony Blair's smile bowed out.

In more than a decade at the side of the Labour leader who became a Prime Minister, Mr Campbell has been singular among press secretaries, arguably the most high-profile there has ever been. It is not every British press secretary whose departure makes the top of the American news wires.

Not only the Prime Minister's closest aide, Mr Campbell was also Mr Blair's friend. The Blairs and the Campbells holidayed together. Mr Campbell's partner, Fiona Millar, who also leaves No 10, was for years Cherie Blair's personal adviser.

So close were the two men - Mr Campbell is one of the few people fearless enough to shout at Mr Blair and matey enough to give him a laugh - that his words came to be seen as those of the PM himself.

The media's fascination with Mr Campbell was fuelled by the knowledge that, far from merely presenting policy, his role as a linchpin of the Prime Minister's inner circle meant every decision was thrashed out informally with him before it ever reached Cabinet, where - in an unprecedented move - he had a seat.

He quickly became a political figure in his own right, given vast powers as an unelected political appointee to direct civil servants and latterly to comment publicly on government policy.

Mr Campbell's persona clearly proved intoxicating for the more giggly faction of females at Westminster. And his often caustic daily briefings at No 10, which he gave up in 2000, attained the cachet of a Simon Cowell tirade on Pop Idol. But in Mr Campbell's case the steely glare and fierce façade are not the front of a weak man. Alastair Campbell had to get tough.

In 1986, he suffered a nervous breakdown - in his own words a "24-carat crack-up" - while news editor of the Sunday edition of Eddie Shah's newly launched Today newspaper. It was a job that the 29-year-old Mr Campbell - a Cambridge graduate who'd made money writing sex stories for the men's magazine Forum - just didn't feel up to. He was drinking "vast amounts" of alcohol. The inside of his head felt "like a sheet of glass cracking into thousands of pieces".

The breakdown was Mr Campbell's defining moment. He had to pull it all together: personally, politically, professionally. And he did.

Off the booze, Mr Campbell's career in the media took off. He soon became political editor of the Daily Mirror. Later notorious for chiding journalists over their obsession with "froth", he was known at the Mirror for his exclusive report that the then Prime Minister, John Major, tucked his shirt into his underpants.

It was also during this time that he became close to the leader of the opposition, Neil Kinnock. By 1994, quitting his now flourishing career in journalism, Mr Campbell went to work for the new leader, Tony Blair, becoming his spokesman after Labour's 1997 election victory. Another promotion came in 2001, when he took the rather grander title, director of communications and strategy.

Mr Campbell, now 46, looks back "with pride and satisfaction" at his time with Mr Blair. Whether he ever sneaks a surreptitious smile at his journalistic career is his secret. What most journalists who have been on the wrong end of his extensive catalogue of cutting comments would agree is that respect for his old profession is not in his repertoire.

An uncompromising brand of personal loyalty, on the other hand, is a different matter. When the Guardian journalist Michael White made a tasteless joke about Mirror tycoon Robert Maxwell drowning at sea, Campbell hit him.

When his best friend, John Merritt, died of leukaemia in 1992, a tragedy compounded when Merritt's nine-year-old daughter Ellie died six years later of the same disease, Mr Campbell stood by the family. And this year, after a typically obsessive training schedule, he ran the London Marathon in their memory, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for research.

His greatest loyalty, setting aside Ms Millar and their three children - and, of course, his beloved Burnley FC - has been to Tony Blair and New Labour. There are those that believe it will be Mr Blair who feels the impact of their parting more acutely. As well as being the mastermind behind the PR triumph that was the 1997 election campaign, Mr Campbell successfully stewarded media coverage of the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

He was intimately involved at some of the most potentially damaging moments of Mr Blair's premiership. When Ron Davies, the Welsh Secretary, was mugged at a known gay haunt on Clapham Common, it was he who came up with the phrase "a moment of madness". It was Mr Campbell who pleaded with Estelle Morris, albeit unsuccessfully, to stay on as Education Secretary. And, though he has denied it, he is said to have given Robin Cook his airport ultimatum to choose between his mistress and his wife.

Mr Campbell's unapologetic brand of tough love, which he admits stems from his determination to protect Mr Blair from the brutal press that dogged Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, has won him admirers and enemies. But in the end his apologists and detractors alike hastened his end - by making him a player in the public eye.

First came the suggestion that it was Mr Campbell who had described Gordon Brown as "psychologically flawed". Then came claims that Downing Street tried to negotiate a bigger role for Mr Blair at the Queen Mother's funeral.

Next was "Cheriegate" in which Mr Blair's wife was accused of using Australian conman Peter Foster to help her buy flats in Bristol. Some felt he would go at that point, after he and Ms Millar found themselves at loggerheads with Carole Caplin, Foster's girlfriend and Mrs Blair's best pal and lifestyle guru.

Though Mr Campbell had let it be known he wanted to leave his post and would go at a time of his choosing, it was the "ghastly Gilligan story" that finished it. He insists he leaves with his reputation intact and his head held high. As to what he really thinks, we'll have to wait for his diaries.