Friday 22nd June 2012
It’s difficult to muster much excitement on opening the 4th volume of Alastair Campbell’s diaries, even more so when you realise that all 724 pages are devoted to less than two years of his life. Are the memoirs of Tony Blair’s press officer really so fascinating? Campbell originally condensed all four volumes into a single, 794-page book called The Blair Years and he might have done better to stop there.
Campbell’s justification for re-publishing his diaries is that, this time round, he’s able to reveal all sorts of embarrassing details that he couldn’t disclose in The Blair Years because it was published in 2007 when Labour was still in power. Loyalty to the party prevented him from being indiscreet back then, apparently, though quite why this loyalty should evaporate once the party has been turfed out of office is never explained.
So what juicy titbits does The Burden of Power, which covers the years 2001-03, contain? Well, we discover that Campbell was no fan of Clare Short’s, then the International Development Secretary. “She really was ghastly to deal with,” he reveals in the entry for November 15th 2001. “She would give every impression of agreeing with you, and then do or say something different; or she would just have an argument for the hell of it, but in that whiney ‘everyone but me is wrong’ voice that made me want to seal my ears with hot wax.”
He also doesn’t have much time for Christopher Meyer, the British Ambassador to Washington during this period. He’s particularly scathing about a hissy fit thrown by Meyer when he discovers that Blair is proposing to take Campbell into a meeting with President Bush rather than him: “Meyer threw an absolute tantrum, said he would be a laughing stock in Washington, threatened to resign on the spot.”
Campbell takes it for granted that we’ll share his view that Meyer acted like a prima donna on this occasion. In fact, it’s not surprising he was upset when he learnt the Prime Minister was taking his PR man along to a meeting with the President in preference to him.
But the main revelations, of course, are about the deteriorating relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Thus, on October 23rd 2001 we learn that Blair thinks “the mad streak has got worse”, while on November 28th 2001 relations between them are so bad it’s “impossible to get either of them to say anything good about the other”.
The portrait of Brown that emerges in these diaries is unflattering, to put it mildly. He’s “monosyllabic”, “rude”, “psychologically flawed”, “angry” and “smouldering”. “I sometimes wondered whether he wouldn’t actually be a total disaster as prime minister and whether in fact we weren’t duty-bound to ensure it didn’t happen,” he writes.
Blair, by contrast, remains the apple of Campbell’s eye. “TB did a very good summing-up,” we learn on September 11th 2001, the day of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre. He’s constantly giving “good interviews” and getting a “very good press” and his performances at PMQs leave Campbell breathless with admiration. “Even the Tories were effusive in their praise for his handling,” he writes on September 24th 2011.
It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Campbell has a man-crush on his employer. This impression is confirmed by the constant rows he has with his partner, Fiona Millar, who is desperate for him to part company with Blair and spend more time with her and the children, not to mention Campbell’s contempt for Cherie, whom he portrays as a vain and silly little woman whose poor choice of friends is constantly threatening to embarrass her husband.
Campbell himself remains blissfully unaware of any homo-erotic subtext. Even after the Sultan of Oman puts him up in a room normally reserved for visiting spouses, he simply writes: “God knows what that made me.”
His general lack of self-awareness is symptomatic of his larger failings as a memoirist. There’s no irony, no warmth, no humour in these diaries – nothing approaching a literary sensibility. Just an endless series of gripes and moans about how useless everyone is – particularly the gentleman of the press – and how tough life is in the hypoxic chamber of Number 10.
Campbell’s shortcomings as a writer wouldn’t matter so much if The Burden of Power contained some genuinely earth-shattering revelations about his former colleagues. But most of the tittle-tattle is about figures now largely forgotten, like Mo Mowlam. Gossip has a shelf life and Campbell has left it too late to spill the beans.
In the Introduction to The Burden of Power, he reveals that he continued writing his diary after he left Downing Street, hinting that there may be more volumes to come. If so, I imagine he’ll be hard-pushed to find a publisher. The proper place for Campbell’s diaries is in the archives of an American Midwestern university where they can be studied by historians of New Labour. For the general reader, there’s precious little to hold your attention.
© 2004 - 2013 Toby Young