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Alastair Campbell: 'It doesn't bother me being called duplicitous'

Tony Blair's former press secretary has just published another volume of his diaries but, at 53, he's a long way off retirement, is still up for a political fight and may even try his luck as an MP

John Rentoul
Sunday 06 June 2010 00:00 BST

For someone who has just been called the most duplicitous man in Britain, and whose fierce temper has been an issue throughout his career, Alastair Campbell is in a sunny mood.

He seems to be enjoying the attention. He has a new book out, the first volume of his unexpurgated diaries, covering the period of New Labour in opposition, 1994-97, and has a full rota of media appearances. The previous week, he was on BBC1's Question Time for the first time, with Max Hastings, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph, who described him and Peter Mandelson as the two most duplicitous men in public life.

"It doesn't bother me," Campbell says now. "It just doesn't bother me. If you've been compared to Goebbels, and occasionally Hitler, and Pol Pot and Rasputin – it doesn't bother me. That was a good example because someone like Max Hastings, he liked Tony Blair, he fell for the New Labour thing, but he's basically a Tory. A lot of those people persuaded themselves that we were pseudo Tories. We never were. Tony's not a Tory."

But there was a time when being accused of dishonesty did bother him, wasn't there? "Before the whole Gilligan thing there were loads of times when I was called a liar, duplicitous. I just let it go because you can't fight every battle. That was a battle – the Gilligan one – a battle that had to be fought because it was so serious and because the accusations were so serious."

However, the battle with the BBC over its reporter Andrew Gilligan's claim that Campbell had sexed up the case for military action in Iraq did not secure the "clear win" that Campbell sought, as he confided in his diary. Now, he sums up what happened in a single sentence: "Lord Hutton, great man of granite, Ulsterman, rock of truth, until he said the things that we didn't want to hear and then he's a silly old poodle, whitewash and we're still a bunch of liars. You can't win with those people. And does it matter?"

Well, yes, I persist. He cannot be happy that a significant group of people, many of them probably Independent on Sunday readers, regard him as the purveyor of lies about Iraq. He is not, but he thinks that attitudes may be changing. "I thought it was very interesting – that Question Time, and that audience," he says. In addition to Hastings, he was appearing with John Redwood ("who actually I've always got on with – I quite like John Redwood"), Susan Kramer, the former Liberal Democrat MP, and Piers Morgan, the anti-war former editor of the Daily Mirror. "And even Piers, who I know pretty well, said, 'They quite like you, don't they? The audience, they quite like you.' When Iraq came up – I'm very good at reading audiences – there were some people in that audience who weren't happy. But what I felt about most of them was that, a year ago, a lot of people weren't really listening – it really was a dialogue of the deaf. I felt the audience was actually listening. I don't know what that's about. It is the fact that possibly now that we're in opposition they're going to be a bit fairer."

The issue of Iraq arose because two of the candidates for the Labour leadership, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband, had disowned their government's policy. Campbell is unimpressed, but is surprisingly polite about Balls. The "complete edition" of the first volume of his diaries includes a number of rude comments about Balls, then Gordon Brown's adviser, who talked "drivel" on more than one occasion, Campbell recorded. Now he says: "They have all grown. I got on very well with Ed during the campaign. But in the end you've got to make a judgment. Of all of them, I think David [Miliband] has got the most rounded political and policy skills that you need. I'm a pragmatist about this. I think about who can take on Cameron best. They've all got strengths. I think the thing with Ed Miliband is that he's a really nice guy, but you've got to differentiate between making the party feel OK about losing and actually then making the party face up to what it needs to do to get into shape again. It's the latter that you have to look for, and I think David's got that."

As for the younger brother's support for half the Shadow Cabinet to be women, Campbell pulls a face. "I don't like that. He's a nice guy and I think he's got a lot of talent, but ..." he tails off, and chooses instead to offer a pointed contrast with a rival candidate: "The other thing about Ed Balls is he is up to taking difficult decisions."

The main historical interest in the new diaries concerns the dysfunctionality of the central relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In that period Campbell often raged about Brown's refusal to be a team player: "Where the fuck was GB?" He records Brown making announcements that Blair had "specifically" asked him not to, and tells how, when Brown lost the argument with Blair on income tax policy, he made the announcement in the most unhelpful way possible. "The tensions started the day John Smith died," Campbell admits now, with the body language of someone finally able to be open about a long-suppressed secret. "My explanation as to why we were so tolerant is because the things that made him impossible were the flipside of characteristics which made him brilliant and indispensable. Even though he could be very difficult, he was a totally fundamental part of the reason why we won as well as we did."

What does he think of Team Cameron, now in the same situation as New Labour was at the end of the first of four volumes of diaries? "I certainly don't buy the idea that it [the coalition] will collapse quickly, because I think Cameron and Clegg have got too much riding on it. So at the moment, they want it to work: the weather's nice, people are glad the election is over and, credit where credit's due, they decided to do something bold. They did it – they merged the manifestos into a programme pretty quickly. They did the first cuts, they did their first Queen's Speech, they've had their first mini-crisis with Laws and they're through it."

How does he rate his equivalent, Andy Coulson? "I don't know him that well. I think it's incredible it's not an issue. No one seems to know how much he's paid or who pays him." We're going to find out, though, I say. "So they say, but let's see. I can remember the day after the election in 1997, the front page of The Independent, with pictures of me, Sally Morgan and Jonathan Powell, and it was all about these mysterious shadowy figures who were going to be controlling Tony Blair. But Andy Coulson – most members of the public wouldn't have a clue who he is."

What is most surprising about Campbell is that, although obviously proud of his diaries and his role in the Labour government (whose record "I don't think we defended well enough"), he is so engaged in the political battle ahead. "I do like the whole blogging thing. I don't know what it adds up to in the end, but it's quite interesting. I'll probably get bored with it and move on to something else, but I quite like Twitter as well." He is particularly pleased with his line last week that Lampard never missed two penalties under Labour, which spawned a thousand online imitations.

So what about becoming an MP? "I do think about it," he admits. It was a possibility at the time of these diaries. When John Smith died, he was already thinking of looking for a seat. Blair asked him about it before the 1997 election. "And I said, 'What are you worried about, that Peter and Gordon and all the rest of them won't last the course?'" He thought about it again this time. "I feel a bit bad because I got approached by a lot of people in Burnley before the last election and they were saying, 'Look, we're going to lose Burnley if we're not careful, and we reckon you could win it.'" Indeed, the home of his lifelong football team was won by the Liberal Democrats last month.

But that was not Campbell's last chance. "I was 53 last week, and assuming the coalition does last a few years you're into mid to late fifties. It's not too old. And I still feel young. I don't feel any older than Andy Burnham [40], or how old is Cameron?" Forty-three, I say, a year younger than Blair when he became Prime Minister. "What's Osborne, 40? [Actually, he's 39.] I feel much more his generation, the Osborne generation than, say, the Ken Clarke generation."

Perhaps it is time for the Man Formerly Known as the Most Duplicitous in Britain to start a new life.

Readers can buy Diaries Volume 1: Prelude to Power by Alastair Campbell (RRP £25) for the special price of £22.50 including free UK and Ireland p&p. To order please call 01206 255 800 and quote the reference 'IOS'.

Alastair Campbell

1957 Born in Keighley, Yorkshire, son of Donald, Gaelic-speaking vet (Alf Wight, the real James Herriot, was an acquaintance), and Elizabeth; two brothers, one sister. Lifelong supporter of Burnley football club.

1969 Attended City of Leicester School.

1975-79 Studied French and German, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

1978 Debut as a writer for the men's magazine Forum.

1980 Met Fiona Millar, with whom he has three children, on Mirror Group trainee scheme; later political correspondent and political editor, Daily Mirror.

1986 Breakdown, after which he gave up alcohol.

1991 Hit Michael White, of The Guardian, for mocking the death of Mirror owner Robert Maxwell.

1993 Columnist, Today newspaper.

1994-2003 Press secretary and latterly director of communications and strategy for Tony Blair.

2003 Gave evidence about his role in run-up to Iraq war to Hutton inquiry.

2005 Worked as strategy adviser on Labour election campaign.

2007 Published Diaries, The Blair Years, 12 days after Blair stood down.

2008 First novel, All in the Mind, published.

2010 Second novel, Maya, published; "complete" editions of his diaries being published in four volumes at six-monthly intervals.

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