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’

The Guardian - - JOURNAL - Alas­tair Camp­bell Di­aries: Vol­ume 6: From Blair to Brown, 2005–2007, is pub­lished on 19 Septem­ber. To or­der a copy for £17 (RRP £20) go to book­shop. the­guardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online or­ders only. Phone or­ders min p&p of £

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’

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