Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

In the frenetic build-up to the release of Alastair Campbell’s diaries I kept wondering whether there might be any way of reconciling Gordon Brown’s desperate struggle to restore trust in the Labour government with a spin doctor’s confident assertion that the publication of his book would be "good for Labour and good for politics".

The Blair Years confirmed that even the spinmeister himself could not hide the truth: there, on page after page, was ample proof of the damage which Campbell had inflicted on the political process through an era of squalid, sleazy spin.

What also emerged through his pre-launch bluster and countless boastful entries about the Blairite chorus of approval for the "brilliant" job he was doing in Downing Street, was that Campbell remained in denial.

With journalists and broadcasters tripping over themselves to get exclusive interviews, he managed to brush aside the occasional question about having gone over the top and seemed oblivious to any doubts about his own ethical standards.

Nonetheless the diaries constitute a compelling charge sheet and explain why one of the first acts of Blair’s successor was a promise to change the law to prevent another political appointee like Campbell ever again having the power to instruct civil servants or get involved in the publication of intelligence information.

What epitomised Campbell’s flagrant abuse of the code of conduct for special advisers like himself were his gloating entries about the way he stamped on the wretched attempts by the then cabinet secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, to claw back a degree of control for the civil service.

Wilson was powerless in the face of the Campbell’s Rambo-like rampage and it holds the key to explaining how, despite all the supposed safeguards against politicisation, the Downing Street staff got away with their misleading dossiers on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; leaked government decisions with gay abandon to newspapers like the Sun; weakened Parliamentary accountability; and spread poison about Labour Party members who fell foul of the Blair regime.

Wilson’s term of office spanned most of the Campbell years and to begin with the head of the civil service was clearly in awe of Blair’s ever modest press secretary.

December 4 1997: Wilson "repeated the line about me having enormous power and influence…".

March 30 1998: Wilson said "I had been brilliant…".

June 17 1998: Wilson said "I’d done nothing wrong…" (over the forced exodus of Whitehall heads of information and ordering press officers to trail government announcements before being announced to Parliament).


But Wilson, like his predecessor Sir Richard Butler, began having second thoughts. Subsequent entries confirmed that Campbell was untouchable:

September 18 1998: Wilson was "worried about his profile and how he was seen to be clearing everything we put forward…"

June 7 2001: Wilson was "up to a few tricks" and wanted to reverse the order in council giving Campbell and Jonathan Powell power to instruct civil servants. "We would have to sort that."

June 8 2001: Wilson "trying to retrench" and "wanted to clip our and my wings in particular".

The cabinet secretary’s ineptitude is gleefully recorded in an entry for March 4 2002, a few months before his retirement. Wilson "seemed pretty down" and felt the government’s information service had "withered a bit under my weight…There was something very sad about him today".

Within weeks of Wilson’s departure, Blair and Campbell were deep into preparations for the Iraq War and in view of the demoralised state of the Whitehall mandarins, it was no wonder that John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, rolled over so easily when Campbell got his hands on the intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction.

Wilson regularly turned a blind eye whenever Campbell flouted the code of conduct requiring temporary civil servants to avoid party politics and personal abuse.

For example, numerous entries illustrate the use of Downing Street to orchestrate the selection of Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London. Campbell was "most strongly arguing for…Ken fucking Livingstone…to be blocked". (November 17, 1999).

Campbell was also up to his neck in what gave every appearance of having become a vendetta against troublesome trade union leaders as Tony Blair moved from opposition to government:

"TB called re the T&G speech…They beg me to go to their conference and then stitch me up…I have no option but to go up there and blow them out of the water". (July 9, 1995)

"TB had done…an effective hit back at the (John) Edmonds line…he intended to give Edmonds a real hammering".( September 11, 2001)

In many ways Campbell’s frankness was refreshing. He had no inhibitions about his efforts to encourage Blair to go "traipsing round the world to see Murdoch" (June 19, 1995), which culminated in the Sun "unequivocally backing Blair" after Campbell supplied a signed article which indicated "TB was not some kind of caricature euro-fanatic". ( March 17, 1997).

Six months later Campbell’s closeness to the Murdoch press ensured a "deal" with the News of the World which allowed him to "see the copy in advance, and consult on headlines" after he agreed to do the paper’s bidding and speak to Robin Cook about his affair with Gaynor Regan (August 2, 1997)

I suggested in my own book, Sultans of Spin (1999), that who knew what the outcome might have been had Robin and Margaret Cook caught their plane at Heathrow and left for their holiday rather than be halted by Campbell’s telephone call.

Instead of having the guts to refuse to co-operate with press intrusion into the private lives of politicians, Blair and Campbell had no compunction about authorising what I described as a "squalid little deal".

Little did I think that Campbell would take such pride in his handiwork: "It barely read like a News of the World expose at all. It was very sympathetic, the headlines were basically onside…" (August 2, 1997)

(This article first appeared in Tribune, July 13, 2007)