Exit Spinmeister, stage left
So Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s personal combination of Machiavelli and Savaronola, has finally decided to depart. The Hutton Inquiry into the suicide of Dr. David Kelly was his final achievement. How come? Well, when it became clear that there were no WMD in Iraq — and never had been any ‘imminent’ threat from Saddam Hussein — and that, therefore, Blair had taken Britain to war under false pretences, Campbell saw that this could fatally damage New Labour’s main electoral asset: the public perception of Blair as a man of honesty and integrity. So he did what great tacticians always do — launch a diversionary attack, in this case on the BBC and the flawed reporting of one of its reporters, Andrew Gilligan. This had two effects. The first was to drag Dr. Kelly into the limelight; the second was to divert media attention from the substantive issue. The ploy was spectacularly successful — not surprisingly since Britain’s right-wing tabloids loathe the BBC and are always searching for ways of attacking it. In Campbell’s mental universe, this was business as usual — just another round in the game he played so brilliantly. But, as it happened, Dr. Kelly was psychologically unsuited to the role of pawn in a media game, and killed himself — thereby triggering the Hutton Inquiry. But the Inquiry, by focussing almost exclusively on the ‘game’ between Downing Street and the BBC, has effectively buried the vital issue, namely that Blair misled Parliament and the British people, with the result that British troops are now dying and Iraq is on its way to becoming a fundamentalist Islamic state.
I met Campbell only once — in Downing Street at the launch of the Prime Minister’s website in late 1999 or early 2000. He was exactly as the profiles describe — handsome, hawklike, brooding, dangerous. He told a lovely story about his boss’s problems with IT. Blair once tried to order flowers for Cherie on the Net and failed spectacularly. The news leaked out. Then it was decided that the PM would take an ‘IT for beginners’ course — with full media coverage. (Classic New Labour gesture.) The course was held in Blair’s Sedgefield constituency, and the PM was not noticeably adept at handling a PC. At the end, he was hesitatingly answering a multiple-choice questionnaire when he noticed that the chap next to him was also having trouble with the questions. “I’m sorry if all this [pointing to media crews] has put you off”, he apologised. “Naw”, replied his neighbour, “that’s not what’s bothering me. What’s bothering me is that I’m having trouble with this stuff, but I’ve been unemployed for years. But you’re having trouble — and you’re the bloody Prime Minister”.
I’ve no idea whether the story was true, but it made us laugh. And it had the subtle effect of, somehow, making Blair’s technological incompetence seem endearing.