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Another side to Alastair Campbell

by
20 March 2021

When James Macintyre experienced a breakdown, it was Tony Blair’s former spin doctor who saved him

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Alastair Campbell in 2013, the day after he appeared on Newsnight to defend Ed Miliband from criticisms made in the Daily Mail of his father

Alastair Campbell in 2013, the day after he appeared on Newsnight to defend Ed Miliband from criticisms made in the Daily Mail of his father

TO HIS many critics, Alastair Campbell is known as a thuggish, warmongering villain, albeit a dangerously talented one. The reality is much more complicated.

True, he gave his head and heart to making the case for the invasion of Iraq when he worked for the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in 2003. And even in his latest volume of diaries, published on 25 March — written when Campbell was neither in power nor especially close to the Labour leader at that time, Ed Miliband — the writer admits that one conversation with the senior Financial Times journalist George Parker was “True. Ish.”

But there is another side to Campbell, or “Mr Loyalty”, as his friend Tom Baldwin refers to him in the book. Even on Iraq, he has shown self-examination; and his friendship with the late Charles Kennedy shows his empathy with opponents.

Campbell is known to have said to an interviewer “We don’t do God,” but he told me in a 2016 interview about “a really deep spiritual moment” at his friend Philip Gould’s funeral in 2011. And it is now well-known that Campbell, who has lent his celebrity to the cause of mental-health campaigning, suffers from bouts of depression, and he continues to describe these openly in this latest account, along with the effects of medication and the views of his psychiatrist.

His moods are linked to politics and power, or “the need to be needed” — and needed he was, by a dependent Blair, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, and others, including Ed’s elder brother, David. Campbell describes his “guilt” over not doing more to help David defeat his younger brother in the traumatic, fratricidal 2010 leadership contest, and details painful conversations and text exchanges with David and his wife, Louise Shackleton. Campbell also reveals, for the first time, his own dilemma over whether to become an MP.

 

BUT there is much more to Campbell than being a main player in the public dramas of Westminster politics — a part that he has played for decades, going back to his time as a partisan but fair-minded journalist on the Mirror, and, less happily, on the Today newspaper, when he had a psychotic mental-health breakdown in the 1980s while his friend Neil Kinnock led Labour.

I know this because Campbell saved me when I experienced my own breakdown in late 2012.

As it happens, the Miliband psychodrama had played a very minor part in my own troubles. Torn between allegiance to Ed, whom I’d known and liked for more than ten years, and a commonly shared sense of shock on behalf of David, I was updating a co-written book on the Milibands when I was given prescription drugs by a private psychiatrist for stress.

Weeks later, I was roaming the streets and hallucinating when it was Campbell who, after an appeal from my family, managed gently to talk me down on the phone. He reassured me that I was not, in fact, seeing SWAT teams, as he guided me across London to my father’s flat.

When Campbell visited me at Lambeth Hospital, in December 2012, he describes me in the diaries as being in a “bad way”, and then, in January 2013, he records: “A little better, but still struggling to separate what was real and what wasn’t.” It would be more than a year before I recovered and returned to full-time work.

 

THIS passing incident in his diaries demonstrates a wider point about a man who is better than his critics, and whose obsessive loyalty to Labour, as well as his family and many friends, remains undimmed, throughout his many ups and downs.

Campbell is critical of Ed Miliband’s period as leader, not least the antagonism to New Labour and the trashing of the Blair-Brown record.

But, despite having himself courted the Murdoch press, he is none the less impressed with Miliband’s attack on the Murdoch empire, and then separately ends up leading the fightback when, in September 2013, the Daily Mail described Ed’s father, Ralph, the Marxist academic, as “The man who hated Britain”. (For perhaps the best of Campbell’s many combative television appearances, his furious interview on Newsnight, alongside the Daily Mail’s then deputy editor, Jon Steafel, is well worth a watch.)

Perhaps, at 63, Campbell may yet be persuaded to run for Parliament, in which case high office cannot be ruled out. More probably, however, he will continue to be a great campaigner, not least on mental health, free from the constraints of the Westminster circus.

Either way — and, for those who recognise in him the sort of compassion that a visit to the depths can bring, thankfully — there is much more still to come from “Mr Loyalty”.


James Macintyre is the co-author of
Ed: The Milibands and the making of a Labour leader (Biteback).

Alastair Campbell’s Diaries: Volume 8: Rise and fall of the Olympic spirit is published by Biteback on 25 March.

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