Politics: He's been back only a week but Campbell is in the soup already
Wednesday 09 February 2005
The Prime Minister parted company with his director of communications because he broke the spin doctors' golden rule: never become the story. Two weeks after being installed at Labour's election headquarters, Mr Campbell is in danger of becoming the story again.
Hostile newspapers have seized with relish on the disclosure that he was behind a draft poster placed on Labour's website depicting Michael Howard and the shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin as flying pigs. The connection with their Jewish roots was accidental but offended some Jewish Labour supporters. So did a second poster in which Mr Howard looked like Fagin. They were withdrawn, although Labour has not apologised. Mr Campbell compounded his mini-gaffe with a grade-one howler as he resumed battle with his sworn enemy the BBC, over which he scored a victory when Lord Hutton's inquiry into the death of David Kelly cost the corporation's chairman and director general their jobs.
The Labour spinner, a technophobe like Mr Blair, punched out a typically frank e-mail on his hand-held Blackberry device about the posters row when BBC's Newsnight delved into it. Mr Campbell meant to send it to TBWA, Labour's advertising agency. Unfortunately, he sent it to Newsnight by mistake.
It read: "Just spoken to trev [Trevor Beattie, the agency's chairman] think tbwa should give statement to newsnight saying party and agency work together well and nobody here has spoken to [London Evening] standard. Posters done by tbwa according to political brief. Now fuck off and cover something important you twats."
Mr Campbell's expletives put the Government on the defensive. Liam Fox, the Tory co-chairman, said his return had seen the adoption of new "sinister and underhand tactics".
In a second e-mail sent to Newsnight, this time deliberately, Mr Campbell confessed that he was "not very good at this e-mail Blackberry malarkey" and admitted his language was "probably a bit colourful and personal".
The Prime Minister's spokesman, questioned about Mr Campbell, said: "I think the person you are referring to is capable of speaking for himself and he no longer works in government, therefore I don't feel the need to comment myself."
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secreary, was forced to answer questions about Mr Campbell's behaviour at a Labour Party campaign briefing which was aimed at attacking the Conservatives for their EU stance.
Mr Straw tried to laugh off suggestions that Mr Campbell's remarks were obscene. "Alastair Campbell is very talented," he said. "The only thing he needs to work out is how to use a Blackberry. I say as a Blackburn fan, the fact a Burnley fan should be technologically challenged comes as no surprise."
In private, senior Labour figures were not laughing off the controversy. One said: "He's got to keep his head down for a while. He attracts attention. Nobody must distract from the party's message at this crucial stage."
Mr Campbell has decided not to skulk around in the shadows since being appointed Labour's head of strategic election communications on the party's payroll. Last Thursday, he looked on approvingly as Alan Milburn, Labour's election co-ordinator, briefed journalists on the Cabinet's meeting - a session that Mr Campbell attended, just like old times. He was happy to be photographed in Downing Street. Others would have used the discreet entrance via the Cabinet Office.
What does Mr Blair make of the controversy? "He is phlegmatic about it," said one ally. "He thinks it's a `process' story that won't affect people in the real world. The squalls will blow themselves out. It's a small price to pay for having the services of someone who is the best in the business." An ally of Mr Campbell said: "The Tories are trying to take him out. They are whipping up the controversy because they fear him."
Leading article, page 28
Johann Hari, page 29
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