Alastair Campbell, the original spin doctor

Tony Blair’s spokesman tells Alan Philps how the world should deal with Trump and what it would take for Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister

Do you think we are really going to leave Europe?
I hope not. I don’t think public opinion has shifted massively. Not yet. People have rejected the notion of a second referendum because it is not clear what the question would be. Would it be based on ‘the deal’? Are we able at any point to put the current status quo in a question in a referendum? We’re in this very confused, quite dangerous moment and the government strategy, if you want to elevate it to that level, seems to be to say it’s all going to be fine, stick with it.

What is Labour’s responsibility for Brexit? Do you think in the run-up to the referendum they could have rescued the situation?
We had been through the Scottish referendum where I suspect Labour had been damaged by being seen to campaign alongside the Conservatives. The Labour Party, as a body, is very pro-Remain but it shows you the importance of leadership: Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell historically are not. But if they had put as much effort into the referendum campaign as they did into Corbyn’s leadership campaigns and the general election campaign, it might have shifted it.

Cameron doesn’t get nearly as much grief on this as he should. He was adamant he had to have the referendum. I don’t believe that. He could have avoided a referendum. He thinks he can get himself into scrapes and get out of them − that is his style. But they didn’t find the traction that was needed during the referendum campaign. I don’t think you can blame Corbyn for that.

The latest volume of your diaries to be published covers the time when Cameron came on the scene. What did you think of him then?
Tony [Blair] was much more aware of Cameron’s strengths than the rest of us. His view was: ‘He may not be great, but he’s good enough.’ I think that Gordon Brown, and to some extent me as well, we saw the posh boy, the old Etonian, and thought the people aren’t going to go for this.

What Cameron did do well was to stand up against Tony Blair at his first Prime Minister’s Questions and say: ‘You were the future once.’ That was quite bold. Then to head off to the Arctic Circle and get himself photographed with huskies. I looked at that and thought, ‘Great picture, but no strategy.’ But maybe, for what he was trying to do at that time, to decontaminate the brand, it was enough. But look where he is now, in his shed writing his memoirs, having bequeathed what I’m sure in his heart he thinks is a catastrophe.

‘Trump doesn’t really have a commitment to the truth, and he doesn’t really care if what he is saying is right or wrong, it’s just what he wants to put out there at the time’

Given the divisions in the Tory Party and the fact that they’re going to take the blame for Brexit, do you think Corbyn could be prime minister?
It’s possible, but the next election will be very different. Nick Clegg has said that during the election campaign Corbyn got a lot of abuse and no scrutiny. That was a very astute observation. If you take things like the manifesto pledge on university tuition fees, the impression that was given is that if you vote Labour, you get rid of tuition fees. If people think you are going to be the prime minister, you will have to explain yourself really well.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m a convert because I’m not, but Corbyn showed he can campaign. He did tap into something that goes back to the financial crash and the relentless Conservative focus on austerity and cuts. There is a possibility that across the world the defining issue of politics may become inequality within and between countries. In that case, who are you going to look to who will care more about that?

There seems to be a dearth of exciting young MPs in Parliament
We have a strange media culture that is only interested in you if you’re controversial or weird. There are lots of good MPs but the ones who get noticed are the ones who say and do crazy things. Jacob Rees-Mogg [Roman Catholic fundamentalist MP] can go on television and say, ‘I don’t think you should have an abortion if you get raped,’ and he’s on the front page the next day. Boris Johnson can become the mayor of London and then foreign secretary. He is a symbol of this. One of the problems that the last government had was that two of the most high-profile people, Johnson and Michael Gove, operate as journalists. It’s about the news. But Johnson seems to have been found out. I speak to quite a lot of foreign politicians and diplomats, and there was a time when they said, ‘Oh, he’s really amusing and he’s very British and he’s quite eccentric.’ I think now they’re embarrassed.

I was talking to a senior elected European politician over the summer who said that in a meeting, Boris Johnson was effectively saying: ‘This Brexit thing, we all know it’s a disaster but we’ve got to get on and do it.’ It’s like it’s a game.

Being in step with the Americans, particularly for Tony Blair, was key. How has that changed under Trump?
I asked Tony in an interview what Theresa May thought she was doing offering Trump a state visit. He said: ‘We’d have done that.’ I said Trump was different. He said, ‘He may be different but he is the president of America.’

But I think Angela Merkel showed the way. Merkel said, ‘We’re very, very close. We will always be close to our allies and we will work together according to our shared values.’ And that was a very deliberate – ‘our shared values.’ So, if you separate away from those values, then we’re not going to be so close. And I think that’s the right approach.

That wasn’t the approach followed by Blair at all.
But you’ve got to remember that with Clinton we were close anyway, politically and strategically. I know people will say Tony got too close to Bush because of what happened in the aftermath of 9/11 and Afghanistan and Iraq; I understand all that, but there was a reason why Tony stood as firm as he did on 9/11. ‘America is going to feel under attack, isolated and we need to show that we’re there for them.’ Now, you can argue that’s right or wrong, but that was a kind of principle. That doesn’t mean you don’t criticize and you don’t have differences.

Now, how do you do that with somebody very different? I think you have to enmesh at the institutional level. If you’re Theresa May, you’ve got to be careful. But, we know how untrustworthy he is. We know that he’ll say one thing to one person and something else to the next person who comes in the room, so don’t get overexcited when he says: ‘We’re going to get a great trade deal.’

What do you think of the White House spokesmen Spicer and Scaramucci? Were they not up to it, or did they have an impossible job?
Probably both. I never buy the idea that the advisers are to blame. Ultimately, they’re appointed, and those choices have significance for the way politicians project themselves to the public. They were both classic Trump appointments. The reason it’s an impossible job is because he is a narcissist, he doesn’t really have a commitment to the truth, and he doesn’t really care if what he’s communicating is right or wrong; it’s just what he wants to put out there at the time.

I did thousands of briefings for Tony and the government and I don’t deny there are some times when you don’t answer questions or you have to obfuscate. But in the first days of the Trump presidency Sean Spicer had to stand up and say: ‘You’re all lying about how many people came to the inauguration compared with Obama’s.’ I couldn’t do that. But if you work for Trump, you have to do that. So, I think he’ll run out of people.

Do you think Trump is a blip?
It’s not impossible he’ll win again. He’s a very abnormal president who is normalized every time we turn on the news and they say, ‘President Donald Trump’. If he gets to four years and if the Democrats haven’t found the right leader, then it’s not impossible that he’ll win again.

The world has changed very quickly. Trump has done or said 50 or 100 things that probably would have put paid to the chances of people in the past. When the pussy grabbing tape came out I thought, ‘Surely they’ve got him now.’ And I remember my son saying: ‘Yes, but you’ve got to remember, a lot of the people he’s going for will like that.’

Another factor that people don’t particularly want to talk about was the feeling among a certain section of the electorate: ‘We’ve put up with a black guy for eight years. We’re not having a woman as well.’ And Trump comes along and he’s very much a white man.

Garry Kasparov wrote recently that there’s a real danger we’re making the same mistakes with Trump that people made with Putin. You let them do a bit and they get away with it and then they do a bit more and they get away with that.

‘The Mail and The Telegraph go after Tony as if he’s still prime minister, wanting the whole time to dig up as much dirt as they can’

Talking of leaders, Tony Blair is a hate figure for lots of people. Why don’t people hate you?
I think some do. But I think the level is important – he was prime minister. I became a lot more controversial than I ever thought I would. I don’t think I was ever really hated by most members of the public, only by parts of the media. If you talk to most print journalists, I don’t think they ever felt bullied. It’s a myth, but with a grain of truth. People ask, ‘Do you feel flattered that people say Malcolm Tucker [the anti-hero of the TV series The Thick of It] is based on you?’ What, the psychotic Scottish spin doctor who wants to control both themedia and the politicians?

And as for Tony, money is an issue. You never hear about what Tony does with his money in terms of the projects that he funds. All we ever read about is that he’s doing this and he got paid this. The Mail and The Telegraph go after Tony as though he’s still prime minister, wanting the whole time to dig up as much dirt as they can. I think that Labour is treated with real double standards.

Isn’t it exacerbated by the fact that Blair is still in politics as opposed to keeping a low profile?
Yes, but why should he keep a low profile? He’s got a lot of experience and insight. What age is Cameron? Obama? You’re talking about people who have been at the top, who are still relatively young and have got decades left, whereas it used to be the case that people would leave office towards the end of their careers and often towards the end of their lives. I think there’s a kind of neo-nihilist approach to people who are in public life, full stop. ‘Let’s try to kill them, let’s try to destroy them.’

In the media?
Yes. And in relation to Tony, partly within the party as well. I mean, it is odd strategically that he is the only leader we’ve had who has won three elections yet there’s a studied determination not to learn any lessons from that.

What’s the thing that you regret most from your time in power?
I regret, although I don’t know what I could have done differently to avoid it, that on my watch the media culture became what it became − political communication being dismissed as spin. I don’t know how we could have achieved our objective of setting the agenda, staying in control, making sure the public knew what we were doing as opposed to being defined by our enemies the whole time, which is what has happened to Labour historically, without doing some of the stuff that became defined as being very, very negative. But apart from that, I wish I’d been able to get to even more Burnley games.

Alastair Campbell’s ‘Diaries: Volume 6: From Blair to Brown, 2005 – 2007’ is published by Biteback

 

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