In the sixth volume of his published diaries, From Blair to Brown, 2005-2007, Alastair Campbell outlines the difficult transition in the Labour party leadership after the party won its historic third term while also documenting his own attempt to build a life outside of government through forays into public speaking, television and the sporting world. While Campbell’s insights into this crucial period in British politics remain lucid and engaging, the concurrent focus on celebrity culture and sport is less compelling, finds Peter Carrol.
Alastair Campbell Diaries, Volume 6: From Blair to Brown, 2005-2007. Alastair Campbell. Biteback Publishing. 2017.
Alastair Campbell’s current six volumes of diaries span his work with the Labour party from 1994 to 2007, totalling an estimated three million words. His closeness to Tony Blair throughout his prime ministership and central role in creating the three-times election-winning New Labour project mean that the series is arguably the most comprehensive existing portrait of the rise and fall of a British government.
In the latest volume, Volume 6: From Blair to Brown, 2005-2007, Campbell returns to the story the day after the general election in June 2005, when Labour has just won its third majority in a row under Tony Blair. The diary closes with the prime minister’s final day in office in June 2007, making way for his long-term chancellor Gordon Brown.
The Blair portrayed in this volume is a leader carrying the burden of living through years of an abusive relationship with Brown, with almost daily examples of his chancellor plotting against, undermining and being openly disrespectful towards his boss. With Brown positioned as the ‘inevitable’ next prime minister, much of Blair and his team’s time is spent ensuring a smooth transfer of power and that the remainder of the parliamentary term honours his election-winning manifesto. But Blair, Campbell and most of the Downing Street team have serious doubts about Brown’s suitability for the job, their fears growing as the handover date nears.
Following a brief détente between Blair and Brown during the short general election campaign, warfare between the two camps resumes immediately after the 2005 general election. From Blair’s perspective, handing over to a successor who is hostile to New Labour’s election-winning market-friendly progressive politics, and who will also lead a retreat into Labour’s traditional comfort zone on the left, will gift certain victory to an energised Conservative party under their new leader, David Cameron. Brown, on the other hand, feels betrayed by Blair, believing that he reneged on their agreement for Blair to handover to him at some point during the second term (in his memoirs published in November 2017, Brown has revived the claim that Blair broke their ‘explicit, but private understanding’ Number 10 would be vacated before the 2005 election). Blair confronts Brown that there was ‘no deal and no date’ for any leadership handover, and the relationship appears to be irrecoverably broken: at one point the pair are exchanging insults in front of colleagues before angrily exiting the meeting, while Blair has to suffer the indignity of a coup attempt by Brown’s supporters one year after winning an election. Much energy is expended as the pair grapple for power, but from Campbell’s perspective, Brown is almost entirely at fault.
Image Credit: Alastair Campbell, 2015 (University of Salford Press CC BY 2.0)
Campbell’s portrayal of Brown in this volume is of a temperamental, thin-skinned, charmless and isolated figure. A much fuller description of Brown emerges in this volume than compared to Campbell’s earlier contributions as his contact with him increases as his prime ministership emerges on the horizon. Campbell, like many of his colleagues, feels a helpless inevitability about Brown securing the role despite his manifold doubts. In one note sent to Brown by Campbell and his colleague Phillip Gould (the late pollster who founded the masters in political communication at LSE), the pair are unsparingly brutal on Brown’s shortcomings:
‘You blame others for your situation. You think you were cheated back in ’94 and on occasions since. It blinds you to some of the realities, not least how big the step up really is […] I hear you, Ed [Balls] etc. constantly complaining about the weaknesses of others, but rarely looking at yourselves and what you could do to improve your operation. This makes people doubt your leadership skills. You communicate unease and fear and divisiveness. You lash around at people who are trying their best in other jobs.’
Their advice was rejected, leading them to conclude that Brown is unable to confront his shortcomings and succeed in the top job.
Despite Campbell’s constant presence in government, he actually no longer has a full-time, official role in this volume, and writes of building a life away from politics. A recurring figure in the diaries is Dr David Sturgeon, a psychiatrist who helps Campbell confront and manage his depression. Bouts of depressive episodes are recounted honestly and unsparingly; at one nadir, he engages in an act of self-harm during an argument with his partner, journalist and education campaigner Fiona Millar. He describes ‘feeling something closer to suicidal, and I was imagining my funeral over and over, and trying to persuade myself that Fiona and the kids, Mum and the rest, would be OK with it, and it would relieve them of a big stress.’ Campbell writes beautifully about the realisation that his love for his family is his reason for living, and concludes that this relationship should not be jeopardised by his loyalty to the Labour party.
As Campbell tries to escape from the pressures of frontline politics and build a new life for himself, the diaries detail his forays into the worlds of public speaking, sports communications with the British Lions rugby union team and reality television. Much of the first part of the book is focused on his role with the Lions 2005 New Zealand tour, while later sections feature detailed accounts of Campbell’s participation in a celebrity-professional football match and as a contestant on television show The Apprentice. Sport is clearly one of Campbell’s passions and he utilises his government profile to ingratiate himself into this world, writing of being delighted to be included as a ‘fully fledged part of the banter team’. This is just one of many examples of where his hero worship of top sportsmen feels self-indulgent: these sections are unlikely to be of interest to anyone who isn’t fascinated by encounters and figures in the sporting and celebrity world from over a decade ago.
The exceptions to this are the regular appearances of his friends, Sir Alex Ferguson and the journalist and television presenter Piers Morgan, with their conversations recounted in detail. Ferguson tells Campbell that his future successor as Manchester United manager, the then-Chelsea boss José Mourinho, is compromised by the ‘Latin-Russian influence – absolutely anything goes. No sense of fair play or decency’. Campbell’s involvement in The Apprentice is the catalyst for Morgan’s recurrent presence in the diaries, who is revealed to be self-aware and sensitive in private, cultivating his provocative onscreen persona wholly distinct from his real self.
Some of the later sections of the book feel unnecessary as Campbell writes about editing earlier parts of his diaries before they are published when Blair leaves office. A number of readers may also question whether it is essential for him to recount the scorelines of football matches watched on television throughout the book. Similarly, Campbell speaks at numerous events around the UK and the world, each one described in repetitive detail, typically sharing ‘good crowds’ and ‘decent q and a’s’.
In this volume, Campbell writes as lucidly, honestly and engagingly as in the earlier diaries. Its success lies in recording and analysing an important political moment for the UK, whose ramifications are still being felt – under Brown, Labour lost the next election, as Blair and Campbell had predicted, with the Conservatives still in power almost eight years later. But most of the sections away from politics, with the exception of his account of his battles with depression, feel unnecessary and irrelevant. The matter of whether politics is of more importance than celebrity culture and sport is for the reader to decide, but the difference in Campbell’s account here is that he fails to critically analyse the non-political activities and provide a similar level of insight to his work with the Labour party, perhaps because he is coming into it as a fan-spectator rather than as a genuine player influencing events. Campbell is on record as stating he hopes his diaries are ‘a vivid and essential record of an important period in modern political history’. The question for Campbell and his editors next time might be – where does celebrity football fit into this document?
Note: this review was published on LSE Review of Books.
About the reviewer
Peter Carrol is a Media Relations Officer at LSE and MSc graduate in Politics and Communication. Read more by Peter Carrol.