The imminent departure of Alastair Campbell has demanded so much attention that anyone would think he ran the country. Probably, quite a few voters are convinced he damn well did, telling Tony Blair what to think on every policy issue from welfare reform to the appropriate level of the public sector borrowing requirement.
The reality is much more complex. On one level, Campbell's departure is a moment of immense political significance. Blair will miss him hugely and with good cause. Shortly after Labour's first election victory in 1997, the Prime Minister described Campbell to me as a "genius'' in his ability to read the unpredictable rhythms of the British media, sensing instinctively how a story would evolve and knowing also how to present Labour in the best possible light. Inevitably, when the two of them spent so much time together, and when Blair regarded him with such esteem, Campbell was a titanic influence.
Even so, Campbell did not run the Treasury. He was not in charge of welfare reform. Almost certainly he disagreed with some of the Government's policies on education and was wary of Blair's apparent passion for the euro, as well as his early flirtation with the Liberal Democrats. He was an adviser dependent on an elected politician for his power. In the end it was Blair who decided how much influence Campbell could exercise in Whitehall, and it was the media, not Campbell, that chose how to portray the Government and the Prime Minister. There were severe limits to Campbell's powers.
In theory those limits should have been even greater once Labour had won an election. In opposition, parties are judged largely by how they present themselves in the media. Spin matters hugely then. In contrast, governing parties can be judged on the effectiveness of their policies. Once New Labour was in power, other elected politicians should have been the ones pulling more strings. Was the Transport Minister delivering better transport policies? Was the Social Security Secretary pioneering effective welfare reforms? Yet various transport ministers and social security secretaries have come and gone with hardly anyone noticing. Campbell continued to matter much more to Blair than virtually any Cabinet minister.
In one respect Blair's continued dependence was wholly justified. Politicians and their policies do not come to the voters' roar. They are mediated through newspapers, TV and radio. The hype about spin is largely a lot of nonsense devised by enemies of the Government and taken up now as a lazy term of abuse for just about everything this administration does. In reality journalists spin as much as any spin-doctor hyping up stories, presenting their work to fit their newspaper's point of view. All a supposedly mighty spin-doctor can do is make an attempt to cajole and persuade journalists to run a story in a particular way.
There are some who argue irrationally that the Hutton inquiry should herald the end of spin, as if the investigation had exposed a bunch of powerful spin-doctors successfully manipulating the media with their evil ways. The opposite is the case. The Hutton inquiry has exposed conclusively the limited power of spin-doctors. In this particular case the BBC has broadcast an inaccurate allegation implying a scandal as big as Watergate. Campbell failed to secure even a hint of an apology. He could do nothing about it other than send messages to various BBC editors, who proceeded to email other BBC editors suggesting that Campbell had gone bonkers. Those were the limits of a spin-doctor's power, those mythical powers that get the media and now the voters into such a state of raging paranoia.
There is, though, a broader question that any organisation needs to address and one that is especially relevant to the current Government. How much should the presentation of itself matter? This is not a question relating directly to Campbell: his specific job was to present Blair and the Government in the best possible light. This broader question is pivotal for the Prime Minister, who has a much wider and incomparably more important remit. Yet Blair has spent so much of his prime ministerial time with Campbell that he shows signs of thinking, above all, else like a journalist. Before 1994 he spent most of his political time with Gordon Brown, another figure with a highly developed sense of how stories will play in the media.
Partly as a result of the influences of Campbell and Brown, the Prime Minister has become a sharp journalist too. He is gripped by stories relating to his own government.
At the Hutton inquiry last week he talked of the story taking off when Andrew Gilligan put "booster rockets on'' by writing for The Mail on Sunday. This is how journalists talk, watching avidly as the story moves on dramatically. Blair was reading a story as a fellow reporter, even though he was also the central player.
In some ways Blair's journalistic instincts have been a huge asset. In a frantic 24-hour media, in which broadcasters often take up themes from anti-government newspapers, a politician would soon be lost without a sense of how to play the media. One of the reasons for the failure of the Conservatives to recover more convincingly is that their shadow Cabinet lacks any sense of how the media work.
But Blair is a prime minister presiding over a massive majority and the leader of a restive party. When making decisions he should take many other factors into account before posing the deadly question: "Won't this play badly in The Sun?'' He has every right to continue attempting to present his government in the best possible light. It is only in the current inane debate about spin that such a proposition is controversial, as if the death of spin should herald a healthy era where Blair would attempt to present his government in the least flattering light.
Post-Campbell, Blair's challenge and potential opportunity is simply to seek a new sense of proportion, where the elected politicians matter more and the policies are given some space to speak for themselves. Genuinely radical policies will make more impact on the voters than the distorting poison in parts of the media. Blair the astute journalist should give some more space to Blair the Prime Minister.Reuse content