Analysis: Campbell spins himself out of Govt

As Downing Street director of communications and strategy Alastair Campbell allows cameras into his home to publicise his charity marathon run, former Tory media head Amanda Platell says his days at the heart of government are numbered.

Six months ago the chances of Alastair Campbell allowing a camera crew into his life to do a film on anything was about as likely as Defence Secretary Geoff Holiday Hoon cancelling his Chamonix ski break.

Now not one but two of the Blairs' closest advisers have done the unthinkable and allowed TV crews into their private lives, albeit for entirely different reasons.

The motives of Cherie Blair's style guru Carole Caplin were clear. It was all about tabloid revenge and, as it happens, a hair-brained attempt to set the record straight about her rather crooked lover. With Blair's spin doctor Alastair Campbell, his motives were, as ever, complex.

The death of his closest friend John Merritt and Merritt's nine-year-old daughter Ellie from leukaemia had a profound effect on Campbell, as painfully explained in an Observer interview given at the height of Cheriegate last year. This was the first time Campbell had gone public in such a personal way, talking about his marathon run for charity, allowing a snapper into his home and a scribbler into his heart. That was the point at which we can mark the real coming out of Campbell, the Tonight with Trevor McDonald film was the high mark of a surprising tide of self-publicity. Yet we all know that once the spin doctor becomes the story, his days are numbered.

There is no doubting Campbell's sincerity, especially after watching him on ITV last Friday. And no one can be puzzled by a friend's desire to raise money for a charity that supports the disease that claimed the lives of two people you dearly loved. But spin doctors are not afforded the personal freedoms and public displays of emotion available to most of us. Theirs is a dark world, their role a support one. The mere act of stepping forward into the limelight usually marks the end of a career.

And no one knows this better than Campbell.

What is not clear is the reason that this hitherto very private individual chose to step forward.

Despite Campbell's private protestations, this film marks a turning point.

He is no longer the silent partner, the bullyboy behind the scenes, kneecapping journalists when they step out of line. He came across as sincere, passionate, funny, charismatic - a character at odds with the dark, brooding hit man so effectively employed by New Labour to break the arms and careers of critical journalists.

Whether calculated or not, this film attempts to change the way we view Campbell at a time when his personal stock, like that of his leader, is well down, devalued by a discredited spin machine and an unpopular stand on the war with Iraq.

The most formidable political communications operation ever known in this country is now viewed by the British people as a sophisticated lie factory. The defrocking of spin has damaged both Blair and Campbell.

And both men's reputations have been hit hard by their bullish approach to war. If you closed your eyes watching that film, you could be forgiven for thinking it was Blair talking, the language was identical, not a cigarette paper between the two men's message. But it is an unpopular message, one that reinforces the view that they are arrogant men who do not listen.

While many who disagree with Blair respect his conviction, especially after the Newsnight special debate on Iraq, there is no up side for Campbell.

Unlike Blair, his core brand values include being the real heart of old Labour, the socialist with a social conscience, so this hawkishness is even more damaging to his natural constituency of supporters.

This film was an attempt to show us that Campbell is more than just his master's lies. This was Campbell in the round - as father, partner, friend, football fan - one might say, just a regular kind of guy.

But again we have to ask why? If he were seeking a political career, all this would be unnecessary. Like Peter Mandelson before him, he would be parachuted into a safe seat at the moment of his choosing, irrespective of the local constituency's feelings.

And anyone who knows Campbell realises this is not an attempt to get himself liked. More than almost any man I know, he couldn't care less what we, the great unwashed, think of him.

If he is planning to take the £1m-plus on offer for his book on New Labour, a softening of the Campbell brand is the last thing the publishers would want. They would be counting on a brooding, irascible author, one moment ill-tempered, the next charming. That's publishing showbiz.

The Campbell brand until now has been brutal and secretive. This film was a successful bid to change that, so one must conclude that he is not just running for the finishing line on a charity marathon but also for the exit door in Downing Street.

As Campbell said in the film, he will never be short of work, but he is canny enough to realise that to get the job he really wants - running the FA, for example - he will have to knock off some of the rough edges.

All that bullyboy stuff is so nineties.

This film, his behaviour over the past six months and the cooling of his relationship with Cherie all point to an imminent life after Number 10 for the nation's most infamous spin doctor.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.