After Alastair

Far from heralding a 'return to real politics', Campbell's resignation has exposed an empty shell.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘What’s the spin?’ So asked a Guardian headline in response to Alastair Campbell’s resignation as Tony Blair’s director of communications on Friday, as journalist Tom Happold went searching ‘for the meaning’ behind Campbell’s bowing out (1). Whether he resigned before the end of the Hutton Inquiry in order to ‘save his own skin’ or to ‘deflect attention away from Tony Blair’, many agreed that there must be some deeper meaning to his decision to go (2).

Why? It was common knowledge that Campbell intended to resign this summer, and that the only reason he stayed on over the past year was to assist Blair with preparing the dossier (and war) against Iraq. After that, he stayed to see through the dossier row and the spat with the BBC. If Campbell had waited until Hutton had reported before resigning, that would have been seen as a defensive move – and after that, there is the Labour Party conference, followed by the start of campaigning for the general election. For Campbell this was clearly a case of ‘now or never’, before the next political cycle begins.

Yet Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party claims Campbell’s resignation was ‘extraordinary’, while others have questioned ‘just what lies behind his timing’ (3). Whatever Campbell’s reasons, the overblown reaction to his decision sheds some light on Britain’s Campbell-obsessed politicos and self-obsessed media. The pages and airtime given over to Campbell’s life, times and deeper meaning confirmed that many see him as the puppet-master of British politics, and that the media never turns down an opportunity to talk about itself, its impact, its role, its relationshipzzzzzz….

For some, Campbell’s timing was a final attempt to manipulate the media on behalf of Blair. On Friday, political commentator Julia Langdon said: ‘Tomorrow’s papers would have been full of more analysis of the prime minister’s performance [at Hutton]. Instead the papers will now be full of stories about Alastair. He has made himself a lightning conductor, deflecting the attention away from Blair. He has performed brilliantly.’ (4) There’s a certain irony here – it is newspapers’ obsession with Campbell that meant its pages were ‘full of Alastair’, yet Langdon pre-emptively pinned the blame on conniving Campbell himself.

Others expressed a similar view of an all-scheming, all-powerful Machiavellian figure, still trying to control the show even as he stepped down. Alex Salmond said Campbell was wrong to resign just as the Hutton Inquiry had supposedly revealed him to be ‘the spider which weaved the web of spin which kept Tony Blair intact’ (5). Apparently, Blair won’t stay intact for much longer now that Campbell has gone. According to Michael Brown, former Tory MP and political commentator, Campbell’s resignation is ‘like having Tony Blair’s brain literally taken out’ (6). Literally? Ouch.

The notion that Campbell was the ‘brain’ of British politics, the power behind Blair’s throne, reveals more about the current political climate than it does about Campbell’s real role in New Labour. The view of Campbell as the driving force behind British politics, who starts wars, manipulates the media and maybe even controls our minds, captures a sense of incapacity among disgruntled Labour Party members and MPs and others involved in politics. Many in and around Labour project their sense of powerlessness and impotence on to Campbell and the rest of Blair’s unelected coterie, who they imagine must be pulling Britain’s strings (see Hiding behind Hutton, by Brendan O’Neill).

So many cheered the announcement of Campbell’s resignation as an opportunity for the revival of politics over spin. Apparently, there is now the chance to ‘end Britain’s culture of spin’ and to kickstart ‘real politics’, and many are watching the reorganisation of Number 10’s press office with bated breath (7). What politics? The idea that Labour has some political convictions and ideas that were somehow suppressed by Campbell and his incessant spinning is nonsense. Indeed, for those who have pointed the finger at Campbell for elevating spin over substance, his resignation might come as a bit of shock – who will they blame now, when it becomes clear that New Labour is all gesture and no belief?

The media’s penchant for navel-gazing also helped to turn Campbell’s resignation into something bigger than it was. There was a palpable sense of self-importance in much of the media’s response. On this topic, the media clearly sees itself as the story, as journalists recounted their stormy run-ins and relationships with Campbell over the years. Yet for journalists too, there could be a sense of loss in Campbell’s absence; having helped to make him the biggest thing in British politics, having obsessed over the meaning behind his every move, some reporters might wonder where to turn next.

For the Guardian’s Kevin Maguire, The Resignation provided an opportunity to relive the time he had been ‘Campbelled’, when Campbell would ‘heave his 6ft 2in frame into your room and stand over you, and try to put you down with a well-chosen swearword (he’d often use the c-word)’ (8). Nasty Alastair Campbell, who even dared to call Guardian journalists cunts.

The Guardian’s political editor Michael White wrote: ‘I knew before I went on holiday that he might go, and I think his main motive has been to go the day before I get back to the office. Typical Alastair….’ (9) White was joking (surely) – though the Guardian’s website still took the opportunity to reflag his 2001 article, in which he recounted the time 10 years earlier when Campbell, then a journalist for the Mirror, had punched White in the face after White had said something offensive about corrupt press baron (and Campbell’s boss) Robert Maxwell.

The fuss following Campbell’s resignation revealed little we didn’t already know about Campbell himself – but much about those doing the fussing. Through Campbell, or at least what they imagined Campbell to be, impotent politicians have expressed their frustration with New Labour, while journalists have fantasised about their role in New Britain. Campbell’s resignation will not reignite politics or allow Labour to unveil its mythical real politics – but before long, politicians and journalists alike might miss Campbell, the ‘meaning’ if not the man, as much as Tony Blair will.

Read on:

spiked-issue: The Hutton Inquiry

(1) What’s the spin?, Tom Happold, Guardian, 29 August 2003

(2) Campbell quits: Fleet Street reaction, BBC News, 29 August 2003

(3) That’s Al folks, Daily Record, 30 August 2003

(4) Campbell quits: Fleet Street reaction, BBC News, 29 August 2003

(5) That’s Al folks, Daily Record, 30 August 2003

(6) Campbell quits: Fleet Street reaction, BBC News, 29 August 2003

(7) Downing Street to overhaul media team, ePolitix, 2 September 2002

(8) You know when you’ve been Campbelled, Kevin Maguire, Guardian, 29 August 2003

(9) Campbell quits: Fleet Street reaction, BBC News, 29 August 2003

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Topics Politics


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