On the PM's spokesman: Alastair Campbell - Blair's virtuous thug and now a key Tory target

 

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"I'M THE master now." That is the charge against Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary and suddenly the new hate figure for half the media and most of the Conservative Party. He has been accused of being a swaggering bully, a liar and a sinister influence in politics. After Peter Mandelson and Derry Irvine, it's Campbell-kicking time.

The Prime Minister himself will be unworried. He knows that Campbell is blamed for his own success. Like the others, he is a target for people who haven't yet worked out how to go for Blair himself.

Blair knows too that in an era of media-driven politics a successful leader needs to be thought sympatico, friendly, decent; and therefore needs to employ a nasty cop to get certain things done. Blair is a brilliant wooer and butterer-up. If there's a prickly colleague to be won round for the greater good, or a difficult journalist to be neutralised, he's your man. But if, on the other hand, a minister needs to be whacked or it's phone-slamming time for the editor of The Daily Beast, then Campbell goes to work.

It is, in short, Alastair Campbell's fate and calling to be PC Nasty to Blair's Inspector Nice - the scowl behind New Labour's smile. It is a calling that he embraces with characteristic gusto. He has all the necessary qualities: a thick hide, a rough tongue and a bottomless supply of loyalty.

MPs should not, however, mistake the game that is being played here. Blair has a range of people around him who do the mucky stuff, and deflect criticism that would otherwise land on the Prime Minister. It was, for instance, Blair who made the decisions on the Dome - yet this is rarely mentioned, and it is Mandelson who will get any blame. It was Blair who put Derry Irvine in the position of chief knocker-together of heads on key Cabinet committees; yet the ministers with stinging headaches blame the impatient Lord Chancellor, not emollient and sympathetic Tony.

Similarly, in the recent case where Campbell was found having written furious finger-wagging letters to Frank Field and Harriet Harman, it was Blair's fury that was behind the exchanges. He had tried to stop briefing and counter-briefing on welfare, which was damaging his pre-Budget strategy. Only when he failed did Campbell supply the rhetoric.

The most potent and difficult problem is over Blair's close relationship with Murdoch. Again, though, whatever you think of that - and I think it stinks - then you must blame the Prime Minister, not his press secretary. Campbell is close to Sun journalists and was heavily involved in the pre- election strategy of trying to win Murdoch over - the strategy which went too far and is now, in government, becoming an embarrassment. But that was, in the end, Blair's strategy, not Campbell's.

I am not trying to suggest, of course, that Campbell isn't hugely influential. He is probably Tony Blair's closest friend. There's no point in complaining that he is unelected: that is partly why he is so close. He has no constituency to nurse, no ambitions or interests distinct from those of the Prime Minister. Every leader needs an absolutely reliable, private friend with whom to discuss his innermost thoughts. All the signs are that Blair's is Campbell.

We can speculate endlessly and enjoyably on that relationship. Unless his views have changed a lot, Campbell is probably a populist and mildly Old Labour influence on Blair. I have a shrewd idea of his feelings about some ministers. But until he publishes a fat volume of memoirs, in the 2010s, we won't really know.

In the meantime, we can at least begin to measure him against his two best-known predecessors, Joe Haines in the Wilson era and Bernard Ingham in the Thatcher years. Both are men Campbell admires; yet he is already a bigger figure than either of them.

Haines has mildly chastised Campbell for being too public a figure. It is true that he's not exactly camera-shy and can be seen regularly at Blair's elbow, like a particularly menacing American presidential security guard.

Yet things have changed since Haines's day. Campbell was fated to be famous, or infamous, from the day he agreed to work with Blair. He was already a colourful and well-known journalist, a good, vivid broadcaster, an occasional pugilist and a skillful bagpiper. Given that, the omnipresent cameras would have made Campbell a public figure unless he hid in his office all day.

Ingham is perhaps the more interesting parallel. Like Ingham, Campbell speaks fluent Anglo-Saxon and has a short fuse. (We shouldn't, by the way, have any time for journalistic whining on this score. Any self-respecting hack should simply get out the Anglo-Saxon phrase book, and pour it back. Did that nasty Alastair Campbell call oo a dickhead then? Diddums!)

As with Ingham, ``press secretary'' is a grossly inadequate term for Campbell. He is Blair's chosen instrument of discipline in a highly disciplined government: his power rubs up against some of the biggest names and egos in the administration. That hasn't helped his popularity. But if ministers leak or brief against one another then, in Blair's book, they deserve to get whacked. And if, in other respects, they let Campbell trample all over them then they shouldn't be ministers in the first place. His role as Enforcer, and his friendship with Blair, make him a lot more than a press officer. He matters more to the current Prime Minister even than Sir Bernard mattered to Margaret Thatcher.

The great difference, so far, is that Campbell has avoided the semi-official destruction of ministers' authority and careers that marked Ingham's period. Ingham's unattributable briefings felt like anonymous knives in the back for those Tories on the receiving end; and that nasty courtier-politics was one reason for The Independent boycotting and subverting the lobby system when we first launched in 1986. Campbell, by contrast, has abolished the unattributable briefings which were the main daily method of spreading poison. He speaks on the record. He doesn't, in my experience, play games.

And is he guilty of manufacturing news? Well of packaging it, certainly: the appetite for stories is constantly accelerating and needs feeding, particularly at the weekend, with low-fibre, high-fat munchable stories in brightly-coloured cartons. It is part of Campbell's job to supply that need; because if Number 10 doesn't, its enemies will. I suspect he often feels less like a control freak than a fast-food operative, hurling late- night stories at a queue of ravening sickos.

So he's powerful, rude and committed. Whatever the opposite of Luvvie is, that's Campbell. He's tribal. He enjoys his power. Of all the arguments I've had with New Labourites, none has been as spectacularly angry as with him.

But he is Blair's true instrument. And he doesn't lie. And he isn't sinister. So if you don't like New Labour's tunes, complain to the management. Don't shoot the pianist (or in this case the bagpiper).

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