Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Alastair Campbell’s pre-launch publicity blitz for The Blair Years was a text book example of the sleazy spin which so damaged the Blair government. Self-serving leaks to the newspapers whetted the appetite of reporters; broadcasters tripped over themselves in their rush to gain exclusive interviews; and barely any questions were asked about the ethics of how it was that a public servant could earn £1million by selling secrets gathered around the cabinet table.

But once the first, much-hyped extracts from his diaries appeared on his website even the spinmeister himself could not hide the truth: there, between the lines, was evidence of the way Campbell had driven a coach and horses through the code of conduct for politically-appointed temporary civil servants.

No wonder Gordon Brown promised in his statement on restoring trust to the political process (3.7.2007) that he would legislate to make sure that never again would a political appointee like Campbell be allowed to hold the power to give instructions to civil servants and get involved in the preparation and publication of intelligence information.

I have always admired Campbell’s ability to influence the news agenda and I acknowledge that the build-up to the publication of his diaries was masterful; I commend him too for his frankness, especially, for example, over his revelation in the book that in March 2003 all of Blair’s aides had "pretty severe moments of doubt" about Britain joining America’s attack on Iraq.

What caught my attention in the brief extracts on his website was not simply Campbell’s admission that he enjoyed "flirting" with Princess Diana but his sexist remarks about the women in the Sinn Fein’s delegation to Downing Street and the quip that Blair wanted to give the GMB union leader, John Edmonds, a "real hammering" at the TUC conference, a glimpse of the vendetta which Downing Street pursued against union leaders and other opponents such a Ken Livingstone in his bid to become Mayor of London.


Even when it comes to his own involvement in episodes such as suicide of the weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, Campbell still cannot see the mote in his own eye. In his interview on Sunday AM he said he could "defend every single thing that I did…and said".

Yet as evidence to the Hutton Inquiry established, Campbell was continuing to give anonymous briefing. Yes journalists were engaged in a despicable witch hunt to out Kelly but it was Campbell himself who was feeding the "feral beasts".

What the limited extracts illustrate ( "Clare Short was making a complete fool of herself") was the way Campbell flouted the special advisers’ code which required that as a temporary civil servant he should not engage in party politics or personal abuse.

Of far greater significance -- and hopefully the full text will throw light on this -- is the damage which Campbell inflicted on the Parliamentary process because of the way he was allowed to rewrite the rules for government information officers so that they could trail announcements in the news media before being announced to Parliament.

I hope (but doubt) that still ringing in Campbell’s ears is the sound of the lengthiest applause at the Labour special conference (24.6.2007) when the newly-elected deputy party leader, Harriet Harman, welcomed Gordon Brown’s pledge that government decisions would now be announced first to Parliament and not leaked beforehand.

The new Prime Minister has gone some way to honouring his commitment. His cabinet reshuffle was not spun in advance: the appointment of Jacqui Smith as Home Secretary was a genuine surprise. And the same went for his statement on the constitution: a possible reduction in the voting age to sixteen and holding general elections over a weekend had not been trailed ahead of the statement.

Perhaps the most telling observation during the weekend’s hullabaloo over Campbell’s diary was Brown’s remark on Sky News about whether people like Campbell who had been "in public jobs should be writing diaries".

That is the ethical question which Campbell should have been asked time and time again. Here he was in a fantastic job in Downing Street being handsomely rewarded by the taxpayer with a salary of £100,000 plus; privy to intimate conversations with cabinet ministers and world leaders; but surreptitiously he was taking a note of what they thought were private conversations; and now he is publishing his diaries within a couple of weeks of Blair standing down as Prime Minister.

Originally Campbell had promised a self-denying ordinance: his diaries would not be published while Labour were in office. Why did he dump that undertaking? He gave his explanation on Sunday AM: "Initially I thought, well I’ll just wait, I don’t know, ten, fifteen, twenty years and then just put them all out there…I started to think…and actually thought it’s a bit of waste for that just to sort of sit there". Precisely so, especially when a publisher’s advance of £1million is on offer.