Alastair Campbell: He's back!

Labour closes the gap on the Tories in the polls. Gordon Brown is reinvented as a class warrior. David Cameron is given a hiding at PMQs. It can only mean one thing, says Andy McSmith
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Indy Politics

In politics when things go right, they go right. Gordon Brown is currently enjoying a set of opinion polls that are not quite as ghastly as they used to be, suggesting that the public thinks slightly less badly of him than they did a month ago. And this week, he astonished almost everyone who watched him by squashing David Cameron in their weekly joust at Prime Minister's Questions.

Labour MPs are so unused to the clunking Prime Minister putting on a display of sure-footed wit that they almost combusted with excitement. "I'm very glad you're enjoying yourselves," the Speaker, John Bercow, remarked, as he appealed for calm. "You all seem to have had a very hearty breakfast."

As well as prompting frivolous questions about what Sarah Brown had given her husband for breakfast to put him on such a high, the event set observers wondering whether something different was happening in the Downing Street bunker to restore Gordon Brown's fighting spirit.

In fact, a familiar figure has been seen paying unpublicised calls on the Prime Minister – a tall, athletically built man in his early fifties, who holds his head high and has the manner of someone who is daring anyone to take him on if they are hard enough. Alastair Campbell, the most famous unelected adviser ever employed by any British prime minister, is back on the scene.

Campbell's fingerprints can be detected on Gordon Brown's latest line of attack on the Tory leadership, which made use of the revelation that Zac Goldsmith, a rising, Eton-educated Tory star, had just been outed as having much of his inherited wealth stashed abroad. "The issue for the country is this: is it public services for the many or inheritance tax cuts for the few," he told David Cameron. "With you and Mr Goldsmith, your inheritance tax policy seems to have been dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton."

When the Conservatives elected David Cameron as the first old Etonian to be their leader since Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1965, Labour's tribal instinct was to attack him for his class background, just as Cameron's predecessor Michael Howard, a former grammar school boy, used to taunt Tony Blair over his public school education.

But voices of caution told them this was a bad idea. Tony Blair and others spent many years persuading middle class voters that Labour was not the party of social envy. When Cameron's shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, promised to cut inheritance tax, Brown's instinct was to match the promise, holding on to those vital middle class votes.

But Campbell believes that in today's climate, with ordinary people suffering the effects of recession, there are votes to be won by painting the Tory leadership as effete public schoolboys wanting to make members of their own class richer by relieving them of inheritance tax.

"The Tories and their media friends will try to present this as class war, as they will any reminder that Cameron went to a school that is a symbol of a system of class and privilege, and a fairly big barrier to Cameron's efforts to present himself as someone who gets the life of most people," Campbell wrote on his blog yesterday.

"This crazy inheritance tax policy, one of their few firm commitments, is fast becoming a potent symbol of the politics of privilege, that those who have should be helped to have some more.

"At a time of plenty, it might have seemed a jolly good wheeze. Right now, with the Tories ready to make savage cuts to public services, it doesn't look too clever."

The return of Alastair Campbell carries certain risks for Gordon Brown, just as his decision to bring Peter Mandelson back in to government did. No other Downing Street adviser has ever had a reputation like Campbell's, because of the aggression with which he defended Tony Blair's reputation and interests, particularly in the run up to the Iraq war. In a confrontation on Newsnight, Michael Howard accused him to his face of "bullying and lying his way across our political life".

Satirists also latched on to his reputation. He is the prototype for Malcolm Tucker, the frenetic spin doctor from The Thick of It, who spread waves of terror through Whitehall. This week, Campbell came sixth in a poll conducted by Cambridge students to choose the university's worst-ever alumni. He was behind Oliver Cromwell and Vanessa feltz, and a long way behind the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, but ahead of Enoch Powell.

Calling Campbell a "bully" is not, actually, an accurate use of language. A bully takes pleasure in tormenting people who are unable to defend themselves. When David Cameron's chief spin doctor, Andy Coulson, was editor of the News of the World, he took against a sports writer named Matt Driscoll, who was subjected to so much harassment that he developed a stress-related illness, yet even while he was off sick he was bombarded by daily phone calls, e-mails, and recorded letters. That is bullying is the normal sense of the word. An employment tribunal ruled that Driscoll had suffered "a consistent pattern of bullying behaviour", led by Coulson, and awarded Driscoll a record £792,736 in damages.

By contrast, though Campbell is certainly combative, obsessive, and always convinced that he is right, during his 15 years in the public eye, there is no record of his picking on someone who was in no position to fight back. He has been accused by bloggers of contributing to the death of the weapons specialist David Kelly. But he never intended any harm to Dr Kelly, who was caught in the glare of publicity because of a feud between Campbell and someone well able to stand up to him – the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan, who had traduced Campbell's reputation, citing Dr Kelly as an anonymous source. Lance Price, who worked with Campbell in Downing Street, said: "He is not a bully. He likes a fight but that's not the same as bullying people who are defenceless."

Even so, Campbell's reappearance invites controversy, and yesterday, Downing Street was playing it down. Aides have insisted that one of Gordon Brown's best gags on Wednesday came to him on the spur of the moment. Another, at the expense of the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, was whispered in his ear by the International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander. Others, including the line about Eton playing fields, were rehearsed in Downing Street, with several people making suggestions.

"Alastair is available for advice, and he occasionally comes in," a spokesman said. "But contrary to rumours, there are other people capable of coming up with good jokes other than the great Alastair Campbell. I know he'll find that unbelievable."