When the political satire In The Loop came out in 2009, the Culture Show did a segment in which the critic Mark Kermode watched the film with Alastair Campbell. Afterwards, a sourfaced Campbell delivered his verdict: “I didn’t find it terribly funny.”
Kermode said he had sympathy with any representation of politics as venal and crass because, in his opinion, it is. Campbell looked aghast. “If you go round saying politics is venal and crass, don’t be surprised if young people think ‘why should we give a shit about the world’… Scepticism is great but what you’ve just expressed is cynicism, and that’s so lazy, so easy, you should know better.” And for a disorientating moment it seems the bequiffed critic has done more to besmirch the reputation of British politics than Campbell himself, the unelected spin doctor who many held to be the most powerful man in Britain for almost a decade.
Former editor of the Daily Telegraph Charles Moore once called Campbell “the most pointlessly combative man in human history”. It’s funny but inaccurate; his combativeness isn’t pointless. It’s one of a variety of tactics he employs in pursuit of winning, an obsession of his, and a subject on which he can now say he has literally written the book. Winners: And How They Succeed, released last week, is 400 pages of interviews with sporting, political and business greats, in which he explores what it takes to be a winner. He also goes into detail about how he helped secure three stunning election victories for New Labour.
So, how did he? The In The Loop exchange is a perfect distillation of his technique. In confronting Campbell with his diabolic onscreen analogue, Malcolm Tucker, Kermode was hoping to make him squirm. But he turned the tables, putting himself on the front foot and leaving the critic looking like the guilty party. This is how he operates in competitive situations: he asserts himself, sets the agenda, refuses to give up any ground, and, more often than not, wins. Backed into a corner, he only gets more aggressive.
“Ooooh, look at that coat,” he says admiringly as I step into his publicist’s Pimlico office.
“Err, thanks.” I wasn’t expecting this.
“But don’t you think it’s a bit Farage-esque?”
Straight away, I’m on the back foot.
There’s an adversarial edge to almost everything he says. He makes no apology for seeing politics as a sport – but who, apart from the Tories, is the opposition? “Certainly parts of the media. If you’re Ed, there’s no point thinking you’re paranoid; large parts of the media are out to get you.”
In a 2009 interview, Campbell said he was listening to a politician on the radio and “almost crashed the car it was so bad”. It’s a mercy he wasn’t driving when he heard Miliband’s conference speech in which he forgot to mention the deficit, or when the Labour leader was photographed gurning his way through a bacon sandwich. But though he may cringe at Miliband’s slip-ups, he’s loath to say anything; the winner in him knows that if Labour is to have any hope of success in the coming election, the last thing it needs is criticism from him. “The public distrusts divided parties,” he writes in Winners.
But read the book closely and there are some damning words, even if they are lumped in with criticisms of British politics as a whole. He writes: “Can the Cabinet or the Shadow Cabinet really say they are waking up every day, asking themselves ‘who wants it more?’… None of the UK main parties communicate that sense of absolute focus and determination.”
Miliband’s presentational failures are well documented, but to hear his work ethic is also lacking will alarm Labour supporters. The two things may be linked – to maintain complete control over your public image, to keep on top of absolutely everything, perhaps you need a superhuman work ethic. You could, at least in Campbell’s case, substitute “superhuman” for “obsessive” – he has spoken openly about his mental health problems and some of his books are even dedicated to the doctor who helped him in the aftermath of a psychotic attack in 1986. That particular episode was brought on by drink, but he has also experienced depression; its lows and soaring highs. In Winners he reveals he wrote his well-received third novel in nine frenzied days, including Christmas Day. This “mania” he says, often has a role to play in winning.
So mania can induce success – but can the opposite also be true: can success induce a kind of madness? Some commentators have said Tony Blair’s electoral victories went to his head, and Campbell’s own diaries reveal the Prime Minister became increasingly fond of “chatting to his maker”.
“Some people just believe in God,” he says, with no attempt to hide his mystification. “I don’t actually think Tony Blair wore his religion on his sleeve –” I’m not asking whether he wore his religion on his sleeve, I’m asking whether winning drove him mad? “No. I’ve seen the pressures of being Prime Minister and I think he’s incredibly sane, despite being vilified. None of us have perfect mental health. So I don’t think Tony is mad. Or Thatcher. I might put old Vlad [Putin] in that category, though.”
But when people see Blair refusing to admit any wrongdoing over Iraq, or that his foreign policy led, at least in part, to the current situation in the Middle East, they see someone out of sync with reality. “He’s never not expressed regret about a lot of the things that happened. The question is whether he still thinks he had to tackle what Saddam represented. He sees these things happening… and his critics say ‘that’s the consequence of what you did.’ But he’s saying I was actually ahead of you all in seeing where this was heading.”
So the Iraq invasion was a preemptive strike in the inevitable showdown between extreme Islam and the west? The idea that Tony Blair is more vindicated by, than partly responsible for, the chaos engulfing Iraq and Syria is an audacious piece of spin from Campbell. I pull from my bag Patrick Cockburn’s agenda-setting book The Rise of Islamic State and read his damning verdict on the War on Terror: “Before 9/11, Al Qaeda was a generally ineffectual organisation–”
He cuts me off. “Excuse me, what? Ineffectual organisation?
Look what they did!”
I try to argue that the destruction of the Twin Towers belied the fact that, as an organisation, Al Qaeda lacked both resources and leadership and was, as Cockburn puts it, little more than some camps in the Afghan desert. I try to argue that Isis has its roots in the conflict between Saudi Arabia-funded hard-line Sunnis and the deeply sectarian Shia government Bush and Blair installed in Iraq. I try to argue that the foreign policy pursued by the UK and US turned a relatively stable Middle East with a small Jihadi element, into one in which Jihadism thrives and, in some areas, dominates.
That’s what I tried to argue, against an ever-loudening barrage of “but that’s just your opinion” and “you don’t know that” and, finally, “you can bring along a book and read it to me but that’s your view”. I spluttered and crumpled. I felt embarrassed, silly for even attempting to state my case. Listening back to the recording you can hear my voice getting less assertive as he becomes more aggressive. I’m guessing Kermode felt the same.
I try once more: does he really think the current situation in Iraq would be the same if Blair and Bush hadn’t invaded? “The honest answer is we don’t know… I think it’s far too simplistic to say Bush and Blair did what they did after 9/11 and we should have had a different strategy. Nobody ever says what that strategy should be.
Patrick Cockburn’s got a world view, you obviously share it… That’s fair enough. You’re not right or wrong.”
Cockburn is an award-winning Middle East expert with a reputation for forensic, methodical reporting; Campbell is a pathologically partisan former spin doctor with half an eye on the history books. The suggestion that their views are two equally speculative opinions in a world of unknowable things is somewhat spurious. But this manoeuvre – dragging everything into the realm of opinion where he can swing at it – is effective because few certainties are so durable they can withstand unlimited levels of abuse.
His publicist steps in: “Can we not spend the whole time talking about Iraq?”
“I can talk about Iraq all day, I don’t care,” he says in his macho way.
Such tenacity makes Campbell a formidable political adversary. Given he’s such a winner, it must be frustrating to see his own party failing to capitalise on what he considers a weak Prime Minister? “It can be, but I think there’s still time for it to happen. In 1997, 2001 and 2005, I knew what the result was going to be. Last time, if I’m being frank, I thought [the Conservatives] would get a majority, but we stopped that. This time no one knows what’s going to happen. The campaign is going to be fundamental. At the moment people are switching off, and they’re bound to when every day Cameron is on the radio talking about something completely different to the night before. When it gets into the campaign – and I think this is why he’s so desperate to avoid the debates – Labour can win this election. I don’t sense any desire to have this government back.”
Still, with the economy improving, Cameron’s position is getting stronger. “The Tories are telling people that because of this bit of data or that bit of data they’ve created some sort of economic miracle. The reason they’ve been able to do that is because we didn’t push back hard enough on the ‘this mess we inherited’ business, as if the crash was created by Labour, when of course it was a global crisis. I go north a lot for football and a guy said to me ‘what’s this recovery they’re all talking about in London?’ The media class talk about it as if it’s a fact. It’s not a fact.”
It strikes me that this gets to the heart of what people find objectionable about the adversarial politics Campbell loves so much; you can imagine the scene at Labour HQ when good economic figures come through, everyone down in the dumps that Britain is finally emerging from a recession that’s held us back for over half a decade. People see it as politicians putting victory for themselves before the good of the nation. Take Campbell’s diary entry from 1996, in which he describes witnessing England getting beat by Germany in the semi-final of the Euros. Worried that a residual feel-good factor could keep the Tories in government, he roots for Germany. “I tried not to let my happiness show as we walked to the car. Once we got in, I said ‘Yesssss,’ and shook my fist. TB said can you leave any celebrations until you get home? I said don’t pretend you feel any different. When we dropped him off, I said Gute Nacht, mein Kapitan. Jetzt sind die Tories gefuckt.” It’s a funny anecdote, and it’s understandable in a way, but it’s a shame. The public finds it a shame.
How does he assess his own reputation? “Stellar!” he declares, and chuckles. “If you weigh up all the bad press, it’s quite a lot. It dwarfs the good press. But I get paid very large sums of money to go around the world talking to people about how to build their reputation. In other words, those people think I have a good reputation for what I do. And I always say to these people, reputation is not about the press you get. This is how I judge reputation: if I write a book about winning, do you want to talk to me about it? If David Cameron reads in a newspaper ‘Alastair Campbell is helping Ed Miliband with his campaign’, does he think that’s a good thing for him or a bad thing? I know the answer to that, and that’s about reputation as well.”
So the press don’t like him and he doesn’t care, but what does the average Labour voter think about Alastair Campbell? “Somebody in the Labour party told me I’m in the top three people they ask to do fundraisers. I think I’m popular in the party because they know I’m loyal.”
He’s right, and it’s not just Labour supporters. There’s definitely a wry affection detectable in the way many people talk about him. It’s a lot to do with his fierce loyalty, but there’s also a certain nostalgia for the pre-Iraq Blair era, a time of optimism when politicians wielded actual power, when they weren’t hemmed in by a hostile public or the dull compromise of coalition. But Campbell bears some responsibility for that hostility. The spin tactics that helped secure his winning streak set the stage for the current generation of political losers, who, faced with an embittered electorate sick of being played, never really stood a chance of winning.
But people also miss his sense of mischief, his chutzpah. It’s hard to think of anyone in today’s parties who could make Adam Boulton lose his temper on live TV the way Campbell did in 2010.
“I could see he was losing it and losing it and losing it,” he smiles. “On the one hand I’m trying to explain a complex situation and remain articulate and focused while he’s getting closer and closer into my space, and I’m thinking, ‘what do I do if he head butts me?’ I’m also thinking, ‘is my mum watching?’ Then I remember she hasn’t got Sky. And then I think, if he’s going to head butt me I’m going to have to head butt him first, because the thing about head butting is that you have to do it first, or your nose gets broken.”
He turns to his petite publicist: “Have you ever headbutted anyone?”
In Campbell’s mind, everyone is capable of violence. “I had no idea [the clip had gone viral] until I went back into Downing Street. I got a standing ovation.” His publicist is glaring at him. He’s gone too far off the book again.
Campbell has spoken in the past about one more big job. “Yes,” he says, “but what would it be?” For now he’s enjoying writing books, going to football matches and being with his family. When the interview finishes he’s straight on the phone to his son, and in Winners’ acknowledgements he thanks all three of his children. In the book, he quotes the legendary American Football coach Vince Lombardi: “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfilment of all he holds dear, is that moment when he worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”
Something about this image reminds me of Campbell post-politics. Or perhaps he’s in the moment after this moment, when the athlete climbs to his feet, dusts himself off and jogs serenely around the stadium. After all that fight, all that sweat – a victory lap.
Winners, published by Hutchinson, is out now