The past couple of weeks can’t have been easy for Alastair Campbell, the man best known as spin doctor-in-chief to former British prime minister Tony Blair.
The struggling political party he helped turn into a potent electoral force in the late 1990s has elected a new leader determined to dismantle the Blair-Campbell New Labour project; one of the triumphs of his time in high office – the Northern Ireland peace deal – is unravelling before his eyes; and his bete noire, the Iraq war, is back at the top of the news as a flood of refugees from conflict in the Middle East pours into Europe.
It’s a touch ironic then that Campbell – who served as Downing Street press secretary and then director of communications and strategy for the Labour Party’s arguably most successful prime minister of all time (Blair is the only Labour leader to have won three consecutive general elections) between 1997 and 2003 – has been in Hong Kong to publicise his latest book, Winners: And How They Succeed.
A smorgasbord of celebrities from the worlds of sport, business and politics, its pages drip with tales of successful figures, from Richard Branson and Anna Wintour to Angela Merkel and Jose Mourinho, not to mention Queen Elizabeth. All this is topped off with Campbell’s concluding formula of what it takes to win.
The name of the 58-year-old former tabloid journalist, born of Scottish parents in the feisty northern English county of West Yorkshire, will forever be synonymous with the dark political art of spin doctoring – that is, manipulating the way information is portrayed to the public for one’s own gain. While Campbell rails against the label, it is clear he knows that notoriety is a valuable asset.
Winners is his 11th book since walking away from the beating heart of the British political establishment in 2003, at a time when controversy over the country’s decision to go to war in Iraq had hit fever pitch (the Chilcot inquiry, which began in 2009, into Britain’s involvement in the war, has still not concluded). His writing includes six volumes of diaries from the Blair years, three novels and a personal memoir on depression and the pursuit of happiness.
Campbell’s battles with mental illness and alcoholism have been well documented.
In 1986, he had a nervous breakdown in a hotel foyer while in Glasgow, Scotland, to write an article on then Labour leader Neil Kinnock for the tabloid newspaper Today. Campbell was hospitalised and forced by a psychiatrist to determine his alcohol consumption. He hasn’t touched a drop since.
A rising star at the Daily Mirror in the early 80s, he returned to the British tabloid in 1987, eventually becoming political editor and a lieutenant of the late media baron Robert Maxwell. It was the political connections he made at the Daily Mirror – a newspaper which supports and has close ties to figures in the Labour Party – that in 1994 led Blair, then the party’s newly elected leader, to invite Campbell to help transform Labour from a traditional left-of-centre democratic-socialist party into “New Labour”: a political force that would attempt, in line with the prevailing neo-liberal consensus in the West at the time, to embrace free-market values while retaining its founding principle of defending the less privileged in society.
No easy trick, as recent events have shown.
In an interview with Post Magazine in the plush surroundings of the Grand Hyatt hotel, the self-confessed manic with a passion for sport tells of the tumultuous times he experienced as an aide and confidant to Blair.
It was China’s historic resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, and the rain-soaked ceremony of July 1, that presented Campbell and Blair with their first major international political challenge. Labour had swept to power just two months earlier.
“It was relatively early on in Tony’s premiership and it was a big moment in history,” says Campbell. “We were conscious of the tensions and difficulties that surrounded the whole occasion. It was our first encounter with the Chinese leadership, a meeting that mattered. People think it’s just shaking hands, smiling and nodding, but the chemistry that happens in these meetings really does have a significance.
“It was also the first time that I had been privy to a conversation between Tony and [Britain’s] Prince Charles. There was lots going on. I also remember the vile weather.”
Campbell’s visit to Hong Kong this month for a speaking engagement at the city’s Manchester United office – he also gave a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, in Central, and attended a book signing at Bookazine, in Prince’s Building – was his first since 1997. But while he may have been 10,000km from home, there was no escaping the turmoil gripping the Labour Party.
Following the party’s embarrassing defeat in the general election earlier this year, under the much ridiculed and now departed leader Ed Miliband, and a resurgent Scottish nationalist movement in the north of the British Isles – which Campbell admits is still a potent force and could yet engineer the break up of the United Kingdom – came Jeremy Corbyn.
On August 12, Corbyn – a maverick left-wing Labour MP who favours the nationalisation of public utilities, imposing a maximum wage and abolishing university tuition fees (a legacy of the Blair government), and who, up until a couple of months ago, was barely known outside his London constituency – was elected to lead the Labour Party with a landslide victory.
Campbell fears the worst.
“It was clearly a huge win, but for Labour, when we are selecting a leader we are saying to the public, ‘This is the person we think you should choose as your prime minister.’ There is a real danger that we come over to those people now as a party of protest more than a party of government,” he says.
“I think [Corbyn] successfully tapped into the anti-conventional politics mood, and he managed to appear authentic and real at a time when people want to think few politicians are. Of course, it is easy to be authentic and say exactly what you think when you have never felt the need for loyalty or discipline within a party; something which may cause him problems now. “But I will tell you this: Tony Blair believed in New Labour just as much as Jeremy Corbyn believes in anything.”
Campbell seems disappointed, angry and intellectually frustrated in uncertain degrees about the fact that his old boss has gone from hero to zero in the public consciousness since leaving office, largely due to the legacy of the Iraq war and his post-prime ministerial global moneymaking exploits; Blair has banked a multimillion-dollar fortune from consultancy deals and lucrative speaking engagements since he left Downing Street. His personal wealth is estimated at £70 million (HK$835 million). Campbell, however, says this is purely the result of a world leader having entered office at a young age, and hence leaving when he still had much to offer.
Campbell’s defence of Blair is stout and genuine. But you get the feeling that while the two men are clearly friends and share the same drive and political instincts, they are cut from very different cloth.
There’s a hint of this when Campbell explains his famous remark, “We don’t do God” (his response to a question about Blair’s devout Roman Catholic faith) and comments in his diaries about Blair “consulting with his maker”.
Campbell laughs when asked if the former prime minister’s faith was a problem for him, then adds, “I don’t like all this Richard Dawkins-style atheism. People are entitled to believe what they want.” Dawkins is a British evolutionary biologist and author of the book The God Delusion.
“I don’t think Britain is like the United States, where politicians have to clutch the Bible to their chest and say, ‘God bless America.’ Tony’s faith is a big part of what he is, so, no, I didn’t have a big problem with it.
“When I said, ‘We don’t do God’, I didn’t mean we were against religion. What I meant was, in a British context, I am not sure the public takes to politicians talking about their faith because it looks like they are allying their faith to the politics and I think that is quite a dangerous thing to do.
“One of the things I like about Tony is that even though he has a very deep faith, he doesn’t ram it down other people’s throats. The only time I was really conscious of it was when we were on foreign trips. Among all the other things we had to do, we had to find a church, particularly if it was a Sunday.
“For some leaders, you need to find time for them to play golf, for other leaders you need to find time for them to, er, meet people they perhaps shouldn’t be meeting. For Tony, I had to find time for him to go to church.”
On the subject of leaders, Campbell is uncharacteristically coy when asked if he could offer any advice to the Chinese leadership on conveying their “objectives, strategy and tactics” – the three-point formula for success outlined in his new book.
“I think they do a pretty good job of it. [But] I would say that, for example, in relation to the pace of democratic reform, that if you wanted to communicate a better picture of China, you have to do more.
“Countries, regions, cities, whatever example you want to take, they are so complicated. Over time a sense develops of them. Right now I think you’d have to say that China is still in a place where people see it as a phenomenal story of development, but for how long?
“I think there is a feeling that a part of that development people would like to see accelerated is democratic, constitutional reform.”
As the clock ticks on the interview, it’s back to Winners as Campbell bristles slightly at the suggestion that the glittering array of champions he features in his book have one common denominator: the amount of cash they have amassed along the way.
He thinks about the question and then sidesteps the issue, relating instead an anecdote about how he landed an interview with the richest sportsman ever to walk Planet Earth: the just retired, undefeated in a professional fight, world boxing champion Floyd Mayweather.
“I was in the US to interview Anna Wintour [editor-in-chief of American Vogue] and during a Q&A after a speaking engagement [given by Campbell], a woman asked me a question that did my head in. Why, she asked, did I forsake a role at the centre of political power to go off wandering around the world, speaking at events and writing books.
“She really wound me up. In fact, her question kept me awake that night. The next day I said to her, nine times out of 10 when someone asks you a question like that they are asking it of themselves. She said, ‘No, I’m not, it’s about my boss, I am worried about what will happen when he packs up.’”
“I said, ‘Who’s your boss?’ And she answered, ‘Floyd Mayweather.’
“‘Well, after keeping me up all night,’ I said, ‘the least you can do is get me an interview with him.’
“Luck is a big part of winning,” says Campbell, with a grin.
Campbell on …
QUEEN ELIZABETH: "Yes, you can say she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, fact. But, she still has had this extraordinarily challenging role in not just one difficult period but several difficult periods of history and she has done it very well."
FLOYD MAYWEATHER: "People are complicated. A big part of boxing is hype and he's brilliant at hype. He shows off his money. Vulgar, maybe, but it's all about communicating to the world that he is the best at what he does."
JEREMY CORBYN: "Rebellion is in his DNA, and that's fine, you need people like that. It's easy to be authentic and say exactly what you think when you have never felt the need for loyalty or discipline within a party."
HIMSELF: "I don't think what I did as director of communications for Tony Blair was particularly ground-breaking, revelatory or earth-shattering. The idea that in today's vastly changed media landscape - with 24-hour news and social media - the leader of a political party or a country doesn't have a team to take care of all that is absurd."
Alastair Campbell on the toughest job of his life: the death of Diana
It was the summer of 1997 and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash in a Paris underpass delivered Alastair Campbell - political fixer and sultan of spin - one of the toughest jobs of his life.
In the 48 hours following Diana's death, the unprecedented outpouring of collective public grief that gripped Britain was compounded by disbelief at the silence of the royal family.
Queen Elizabeth's muted initial response, combined with the barely disguised lack of affection she had shown to the former wife of Prince Charles while Diana was alive, presented a clear danger to the monarch's relationship with the people.
The House of Windsor had no idea how to handle the situation and, as time passed, an angry population - egged on by a hysterical media - were showing signs of revolt.
Not only did New Labour's newly elected prime minister, Tony Blair, have a constitutional duty to advise the monarch in difficult situations, he had back-up in the shape of Downing Street press secretary Alastair Campbell.
But, Campbell recalls, they were going to have to walk a dangerous line.
"On the day Diana's body was being flown back from Paris, the Lord Chamberlain specifically said to Tony Blair, 'Look, we know how to do state funerals. If the Queen Mother or the Queen or the Duke of Edinburgh dies, we know how to handle that, we have the plans.
"'We don't know how to handle this. We don't have the plans, we know this is going to be different, we are going to need help.'
"We were very, very conscious of the fact that a large part of our media and political opinion on the right was just gagging to say that Tony Blair was exploiting the situation and that made us ultra-careful about saying anything that might be taken that way."
Campbell spent a week working out of Buckingham Palace; a strange situation, he says, because "deep down, I am a bit of a republican".
"We worked incredibly well together. We knew there were parts of 'the system' that would be uncomfortable about what was going on, but we also knew that what had to happen at the end of that very difficult week was an event that was healing."
Diana's funeral (above) took place at Westminster Abbey on September 6, the day after Queen Elizabeth paid tribute to her in a live television broadcast.
The speech given by Blair on the morning of Diana's death, in which he famously described her as "the people's princess", has, of course, gone down in history. Was it Campbell who coined that phrase?
"Honestly, I can't remember. There was a phone call between Tony and me and we agreed we could call her the people's princess. That's all I recall. He says it was his idea."