OPINION: Campbell shows magnanimity in victory

Sorry Charlie, but I am going to stray into Whelan territory. I know Alastair Campbell is your bete noir, but this week's Audience with... the spinmeister supreme was just too entertaining to pass up.

Prior to setting off for the Royal Festival Hall on Monday, I had been visited by memories of those 'an evening with...' humorous piano recitals by the likes of Richard Stilgoe. A disturbing impression that wasn't completely dispersed by an opening visual loop featuring Campbell complete with kilt and bagpipes against the backdrop of Elton John's I'm still standing.

As far as Campbell was concerned, this wasn't politics - it was showbiz and as if to underline this, he had brought along his buddy actor Ross Kemp, also, conveniently, Sun editor Rebekah Wade's husband.

Accordingly, the first half of his act provided a witty account of his journey from Hebridean vet's son to a public figure with an image 'somewhere between Harold Shipman and asylum seekers'. This appetiser was sprinkled with some good anecdotes on Robert Maxwell's megalomania and the foreign office's incompetence, but swiftly dismissed Iraq issues in one throwaway sentence and gave little away about Campbell's role in Government after 1997.

We were treated to the familiar diatribe on damage wreaked on democracy by the merging of press reporting and opinion. But even the sins of journalists - including the BBC - seem to be forgiven and drawn into the ever-expanding circle of Campbell's conviviality. All but the Daily Mail that is.

Paul Dacre is Campbell's nemesis. I suspect that if the Mail did not exist, Campbell would have to invent it. 'It's like a poison in the air' he spat, handing out 'I hate Daily Mail' T-shirts and dismissing the lone middle-aged female heckler as a Mail reader. The great surprise was that her 'lying scumbag... get back in the sewer' was the only really abusive comment hurled all evening.

In the Q&A Campbell and Kemp performed a double-act familiar to those who had attended Campbell's No 10 media briefings - skilfully managing some of the questions, playing up the 'fun' queries and completely ignoring those of more serious interest: Do you still carry a pager linked to Tony Blair?

The result was entertaining but didn't reveal much, except for how tough his job would be if he was still in No 10. Judging by this 2,000-strong focus group, top-up fees and Iraq are issues that will continue to haunt the Government. But as far as Campbell is concerned, the evening was an unmitigated personal success. A quick audience straw poll, not including the politicos, PROs and journalists present, revealed something close to affection - many even cheered him. I hope Michael Portillo, also in the audience, was taking notes.

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