Former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell: ‘I’ve urged Tony Blair to keep campaigning. Brexit is not a priority for Corbyn. There’s a danger the Tories will be let off the hook’
Alastair Campbell’s latest volume of diaries brings to mind the sign that used to be a ubiquitous feature of the 1980s workplace: “You don’t have to be mad to work here ... But it helps!” To my knowledge, no Westminster wag has ever hung one in No 10. From Campbell’s account of government during the transition from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown, however, it would not have been out of place.
As a mental health campaigner, Campbell has always been open about his ongoing episodes of depression. But the mental health issues his new diaries reveal go well beyond the occasional black dog, reaching a torrid climax in 2006 during a walk with his partner, Fiona Millar, across Hampstead Heath. The couple were in total crisis, constantly rowing, confronting what looked like the end of their 27-yearrelationship. When another argument erupted as they walked, Campbell lost it and began punching himself in the face.
“This is driving me fucking crazy!” he screamed, landing a volley of blows as Millar turned white. “You asked me to leave [my job in Downing Street]. And I had left.”
“And now you’re virtually back, and it is making you ill!” she shouted back.
“I am not ill!” he yelled, collapsing against a tree as his left eye began to swell. But, as he writes in his diary, “I knew I was.”
The scene is quite hard to reconcile with the sleepy domestic calm I find in their north London home on a Saturday morning. Millar pads around the kitchen in gym gear; their adult daughter Grace appears at the garden door with a dog; Campbell teases her older brother, Calum, for wearing a hat indoors. The former spin doctor used to be fanatical about controlling the message, but there is a kind of compulsive candour about his manner now, and within minutes we are discussing intimate detail of sessions with his psychiatrist, from whom he sought help after Philip Gould told him bluntly: “You’re just not coping.”
Being nosy, I am of course riveted by the marital dramas. In 2003, Millar begged Campbell to quit his job, but after resigning he never really left, and remained by Blair’s side at the heart of government – hopelessly torn between loyalties to home and No 10. His psychiatrist took the view that working for Blair was a lot like having an affair – or at least that that was how it felt to Millar. By the end, she resented the Labour leader so much she couldn’t bear to be in the same room as him.
Is it fair to say that Blair functioned as Campbell’s mistress? “Oh piss off!” He throws up an arm indignantly. “No, piss off! Honestly. I’m not having that.” But the parallels are unarguable, aren’t they? Blair was the Other Woman he tried but failed to give up. “But it was my job!” Yes – but one he had supposedly left. “Well, yes OK,” he concedes. “It’s just that when you put it like that – mistress – it makes me feel queasy.”
Revisiting the psychodramas of Blair and Brown’s rivalry – what Campbell calls the TB-GBies – it seems incredible now that their squabbles felt worth risking his sanity and family for. What gripped him, he reflects, was the buzz of being needed; he was addicted to his own indispensability. But he adds quickly, “It did matter, though. We were doing important stuff that changed the country.”
I wonder if the publication of his diaries – we’re up to the sixth volume now, the latest covering 2005-2007 – is his way of keeping those heady years alive? But he says no, he just likes to see history recorded properly. We need to know who said what to whom and when, because there are important lessons to learn. “I honestly feel this: if we had held together, if we had always been as we were, as a team, all the time, I think we’d still be there.”
Seriously? “Well, OK, maybe not after 20 years. But I think we’d have lasted a lot, lot longer.”
For such a famously ruthless strategist to indulge this improbable fantasy could lend weight to the lovestruck theory of his devotion to Blair. According to Campbell, what really made walking away from politics so hard was the terrible certainty that nothing else he did would ever come close to the thrill of government. “Nothing else measures up. It just doesn’t. And that’s what I struggle with now.” On paper, his post-politics career might look enviably exciting – he is editor-at-large of weekly newspaper, the New European, writes novels and books, campaigns for charities, interviews celebrities for GQ, advises foreign governments – but all of it, he says, looking suddenly bleak, feels like second best.
I’m not sure he would get his old narcotic hit from working in Downing Street today, though. By comparison with his time, does Theresa May’s government strike him as disappointingly psychologically mundane? “Ye-es. That intensity of passion, it doesn’t feel like they have it to me.” Politics, he agrees, has become dominated by two apparently contradictory types; the maverick loose cannon personified by Donald Trump, and the charisma-free middle manager we see in May. I ask which one poses a greater danger to democracy – madness or mediocrity? “Well,” he smiles. “That depends upon how you define madness.”
He doesn’t buy the idea that you need to be mad to be a great leader, and gets huffy when I say Blair and Brown both looked increasingly unhinged in office. “That’s just not true.” He does, however, advise any employer choosing between two equally qualified candidates to hire the one with a gap in their CV caused by a breakdown or spell in rehab. “I always say, ‘Go for that one, because they’ll have more to them.’ That’s an indication of another dimension to that person that makes them interesting, and you’re drawn to them.”
Does he mind the fact that he is psychologically flawed? He considers the question carefully. “No. I don’t actually, I don’t.”
A preference for madness over mediocrity can’t reconcile Campbell to Trump’s presidency, though. “I can’t even watch him on television any more,” he shudders. “He makes my flesh crawl.” Psychiatrists in the US are forbidden to comment on the mental health of anyone they have not personally examined, but Campbell is following with close interest the debate about whether they might, in fact, have a duty to share their diagnoses of Trump with the American public. Does the president look to him like a man in sound mental health? “No. He’s a narcissist. I mean, it’s just pathetic. It’s pathetic. It goes beyond anything any of us have ever seen.”
Campbell isn’t exactly without ego, of course, but he doesn’t seem to mind being teased about it. We laugh about him reporting in his diaries, without irony, that his psychiatrist praised an essay he had asked him to write – “a fine piece” – on, of all things, humility. He is also happy to record his GP’s bizarre jealousy towards his shrink, who apparently complained that the psychiatrist “did not know me as well as he did”. The image of Campbell caught up in yet another testosterone love triangle is starting to sound vaguely homoerotic, but when I say so he gets cross again – “Oh God, what is it with you?” – as if his sexuality were being questioned, which it isn’t. If there can be such a thing as purely platonic homoeroticism, however, it perhaps figured in some of his relationships with men.
His ardent blind spot surfaces again when I ask if he thinks his old boss has enough credibility or political capital to persuade the British public to reconsider Brexit. “Yes, I think he can. What I say to Tony is, I think he should keep going.” But even Blair knows he’s toxic – “Oh, for sure, for sure” – so what’s the point of urging him to keep campaigning? “It’s very difficult, very difficult, but I still think that if you really believe that it’s a complete catastrophe for the country, you have to do what you can to stop it.”
If Campbell were in charge of the Labour party today, what would he be doing about Brexit? He stiffens. “Now, Corbyn, fair enough, I’m not saying austerity is not a big issue, I’m not saying the pay gap’s not a big issue, but to come back from the summer that the Tories have had, the utter chaos of these negotiations, and the first prime minister’s questions the word Brexit doesn’t even cross his lips? It’s not a priority for him, so I think there’s a danger they’re going to be let off the hook.”
He admits he massively underestimated Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral appeal. “Yes, he did better than people thought he would. I certainly thought he couldn’t win the election,” but adds pointedly, “and we didn’t.” Would Corbyn make a good prime minister? “I haven’t bought the Kool Aid.” Is that a no? He twists uncomfortably. “I don’t want to slag him off. He comes across as a perfectly nice chap.” Given the choice, would he be rather see Ken Clarke in No 10 than Corbyn? “I’d rather have a Labour prime minister than a Tory prime minister.” Yes, but Clarke vs Corbyn?
“Look,” he sighs. “I’m not going to pretend I’ve become a great Corbyn fan. I’m trying to tell you the truth without slagging him off. I think we should stop behaving like we won the election, because we didn’t, and also I think it’s great that he’s motivated a lot of young people to get involved, but if there’s one thing those young people in my view need and deserve, it’s an opposition that’s fighting against the madness of the Brexit policy that this government’s pursuing. That to me is more important.”
After all the triangulation and government-by-focus-group of new Labour, who would have expected Campbell and Blair to be the ones fighting for what looks almost certain to be a lost cause? Campbell’s refusal to give up feels unexpectedly inspiring, even heroic. Perhaps it’s because he and Millar are still together after all their marital hell under Blair that Campbell can believe anything possible.
Funnily enough, he grins – lately it seems that even she’s begun to thaw towards his old boss. However imperfect his politics might have looked 10 years ago, he observes with a hint of grim satisfaction, we had no idea much worse they could get.
I’m not going to slag off Jeremy Corbyn, but I think we should stop acting like we won the election
Alastair Campbell … he still believes that Labour could have been in power a lot longer if they had ‘held together as a team’