Campbell returns to his master's side for a political swansong

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Indy Politics

For Alastair Campbell, the worst thing about returning to the political front line is that he has to listen to BBC Radio's Today. What he perceived as its cynicism used to drive him wild during his six years in Downing Street. So one of the best things during his 15 months of "time out" was being able to ignore it.

For Alastair Campbell, the worst thing about returning to the political front line is that he has to listen to BBC Radio's Today. What he perceived as its cynicism used to drive him wild during his six years in Downing Street. So one of the best things during his 15 months of "time out" was being able to ignore it.

Now, temporarily, Mr Campbell is back in charge of the media operation that tries to set the political agenda - often by trying to influence Today. A dispute with the BBC over an early morning broadcast on the programme became the defining moment of his nine years as Tony Blair's consigliere. Andrew Gilligan's claim that a government dossier on Iraqi weapons was "sexed up" sparked the feud between Mr Campbell and the BBC that culminated in the death of the government weapons expert David Kelly.

Although Mr Campbell was cleared by the Hutton inquiry, he left Downing St under a cloud in 2003.

There was never any doubt in Mr Blair's or Mr Campbell's mind that he would return to his master's side for the final chapter of the story that began when the fresh-faced party leader persuaded him to become his press secretary.

Both men knew Mr Campbell's return would be seized on by enemies, particularly those in the media still bearing the scars of past battles. The idea was for him to adopt a relatively low profile.

The strategy was blown out of the water in February. Mr Campbell was blamed for a poster on Labour's website depicting Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin, who are both Jewish, as flying pigs.

A technophobe, Mr Campbell punched out a typically frank e-mail that was meant for Labour's advertising agency but accidentally sent it to the BBC's Newsnight, which was investigating the story. He suggested that Newsnight be told: "Now fuck off and cover something important, you twats."

The inevitable media frenzy forced Mr Campbell to step back into the shadows. He sought to avoid the cameras by keeping away from Labour press conferences and cut down his contact with journalists.

His influence behind the scenes is not in doubt. He attends some, but not all, of the 7am daily meetings of Labour's biggest guns at the party's campaign HQ. He is always present at the daily strategy team meetings that follow 30 minutes later. He works closely with Mr Milburn, a fellow arch-Blairite in charge of overall strategy, and enjoys a bigger say over the whole campaign than his title of head of strategic elections communications suggests.

It was Mr Campbell who paved the way for the rapprochement, turned love-in between Blair and Brown, interrupting a holiday to head for the Chancellor's home to discuss terms of a return to a frontline role in the campaign.

Despite his fearsome public reputation, politically neutral civil servants were genuinely sad to see him go. He enjoys similar respect at Labour HQ. "He brings energy, experience, focus and confidence," says one colleague. "He knows how to get on top of the Tories. It must intimidate them that he's around."

It would be surprising if Mr Campbell did not have a hand in ensuring that comments by the senior Tory Howard Flight about the party's spending plans ended up on the front page of The Times, for whom Mr Campbell wrote a sports column after leaving No 10. He will have persuaded his friend Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, to appear at a rally.

If there is one thing he hates more than Today , it is the Daily Mail. In an e-mail to Labour supporters this week, he pointed to the Tories' support among "newspapers led by the vile (interestingly an anagram of evil) Daily Mail willing to pour out free pro-Howard propaganda and anti-Labour bias."

For his next trick, the Burnley FC supporter will be in charge of communications for the British and Irish Lions during their New Zealand tour this summer. At 47, he believes he has one more big job in him. But the next few weeks will probably be his swansong in politics.

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