Matthew Norman: Campbell needs a maritime adventure

The truth is that the PM's propagandist is absolutely, almost preternaturally, hopeless at his job
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the back steam room of the Porchester Spa, the Turkish baths I attend in London's lascivious Bayswater where current affairs are debated with a pith that puts the rowdiest radio phone-in to shame, the reaction to Ellen MacArthur's honour was explosive.

"She 'adn't even parked the bleedin' boat!", fog-horned a portly gentleman in a blue-and-white checked wrap while he whipped the back of a colleague with a raffia brush. "It's bollocks, innit? She 'adn't parked the boat, and they gone and made 'er a bleedin' Dame. What the bloody 'ell's that about?"

What the bloody hell it's about, I gently posited, is an imminent general election, in particular, and specifically the return to front line politics of the only erstwhile senior civil servant in British history with the linguistic skills to qualify him for an important position in the Porchester hierarchy. Alastair Campbell has been restored to Downing Street for less than a week, and already the merriment is spectacular.

Making the round-the-world sailor a Dame even before she'd parked the bleedin' boat was, of course, a classic Campbellian manoeuvre. Admittedly, it lacked the elegance of the Blackberry rebuke to Newsnight, whose staff he berated for having the impudence to take an interest in the flying pigs and Shylock/Fagin poster fiascos; and whom he graciously invited to "fuck off and cover something important, you twats". Even so, the instantaneous award of a damehood to one so young has all the hallmarks.

Myself, I would gladly give Dame Ellen the Crown Jewels, an annuity of £100m, and at least one of our nuclear submarines in return for a legally binding guarantee that she will never again surface and attract the attention of the media. But that's just me ... a chronic sufferer of what queeny celebrities like to know as Tall Poppy Syndrome (it's the British disease, isn't it? Build 'em up to knock 'em down ...).

The calculation in Number 10, which is probably correct, is that the majority of voters vastly admire the Dame's courage and ungodly powers of endurance, and that closely associating the Prime Minister with her triumph is therefore a cute electoral device.

Avarice for reflected glory has always been such a strong New Labour trait that, had Mr Campbell been able to swing it, Tony Blair would have been in the dug-out congratulating Alex Ferguson on his knighthood the very moment Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's injury time toe-poke found the top of the Bayern Munich net to secure Manchester United the 1999 Champions' League.

Sir Alex is best known, needless to say, as a ranting, foul-mouthed, bully boy with a strong paranoid streak and a "with us or against us" mentality to make George W Bush look like a jittery consensus politician. Still, they say opposites attract, and, despite this, he and Mr Campbell are such close mates that the manager used to ring the propagandist's 12-year-old, Man Utd-supporting son once a month to discuss team selection and tactics.

That, at least, was the story put about by Mr Campbell, a man famously described by a High Court judge during a libel trial as a notably "unreliable witness", and it remains wise to treat anything he says with caution. When, for instance, he claims that the "fuck off" e-mail to Newsnight was misdirected, we might wonder how on earth he intended it for a colleague at election HQ when it was addressed directly to the reporter who received it. And we might tend towards scepticism over the insistence that the use of the Freedom of Information Act - not a piece of legislation this government has seemed wildly keen on before - to embarrass the Tories over Black Wednesday so soon before an election was pure coincidence.

The history of Mr Campbell's unreliability as a witness (or telling porkies as they'd style it down the Porchester) is far too rich and compendious to cover in one article - the journalist Peter Oborne has spent years researching a book on the subject, and has yet to publish - so a single old favourite must suffice. Happily, it too has a naval flavour, albeit the Danish dentist at its centre was no Ellen MacArthur.

Hans Soerensen, it was breathlessly reported in January 1999, was in trouble in the sea off the Seychelles when our superhero PM came upon him in his dinghy and saved him from Davy Jones's locker. In fact, it quickly emerged that Mr Soerensen was waving, not drowning. He was having a tranquil dip in the gorgeous turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean when he met the dinghy and asked for a lift back to shore. "I thought it would be much easier for me," he later explained, "because I am just a lazy man."

Here, in snapshot form, we find the perplexing paradox that is Mr Campbell. In Westminster and throughout the media, it is almost unanimously agreed that, however unpleasant and even bananas he may be, he is a propagandist of genius.

Yet the oddly endearing truth is that he is absolutely, transcendentally, almost preternaturally hopeless at his job. The fiction about Mr Soerensen brought a day's flattering headlines. The next day, Mr Blair looked less all action hero than vainglorious buffoon. Whether it's the persecution of the BBC or the attempt to rig the London mayoralty for Frank Dobson, be it a weeny fib about a Danish dentist or a nuclear-powered whopper about Saddam's ballistic capabilities, always, always, always Mr Campbell's strategic meisterworks monstrously backfire.

One day, in 10 or 15 years, perhaps Mr Blair will sit back with the first really good history of the New Labour era, and find that it dwells depressingly on the relentless degradation of the political process for which Mr Campbell is largely responsible. For the moment, however, a much weakened Blair clings to his pal like a toddler to a security blanket, and after such a scintillating return one wonders in awe what Mr Campbell has in store for us over the coming months. If I could offer just one suggestion, it mightn't be a bad idea to go for a twist on a much-loved old theme.

Judging by Ellen's damehood and the fable of the drowning Danish dentist, Mr Campbell has a canny, instinctive understanding that we British have an atavistic attachment to maritime adventure that goes far beyond the tales of Patrick O'Brien.

So with an election being fought on the issue of who can be beastliest to would-be immigrants, and since the template is so evidently the victory John Howard plucked from defeat's very jaws in Australia a few years ago, wouldn't it be a splendid stunt to hire a few hundred starving Indonesians, plonk them in a filthy, stinking, rust bucket off the coast of Lowestoft, and leave them to rot there for weeks before sending them away with the steely contempt "economic migrants" so richly deserve?

Endurance at sea may be something to celebrate in a plucky Brit risking her life for a spectacularly meaningless world record, but for any Vietnamese boat people de nos jours, it's quite another story.

According to the rules of the lowest common denominator campaign being supervised by Alastair Campbell, a cheery "fuck off you twats" is the most they could expect. They certainly wouldn't be allowed to park the bleedin' boat.

m.norman@independent.co.uk

Comments