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Alastair Campbell on the strange death of New Labour

Gordon Brown made it into Downing Street without winning a general election. Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

In part one of our exclusive extracts from his latest diaries, ALASTAIR CAMPBELL gives the inside story on the final days of the last Labour government and what led to a defeat from which the party has yet to recover.

Alastair Campbell talking about one his latest books. Picture: Nigel Sutton – Credit: Nigel Sutton

Wednesday April 28, 2010

Jamie Redknapp called: ‘God, you’ve got your work cut out today, AC.’ What’s happened, I asked? ‘You mean you don’t know? Oh my God, your man has f**ked it big time.’

He described it. GB [Gordon Brown] talking about immigration and other stuff, doing fine, surrounded my media, listening to a woman go on about immigration. She seemed to like him, then he gets in the car and his mic is still on and he calls her a bigot. He calls her a what? ‘A bigot, Al, calls her a bigot.’ Oh shit.

At that moment GB’s convoy came by. He asked me to see him. I have never seen him like it. ‘I just lost us the election.’ ‘It can’t have been that bad.’

‘It was. It’s a f**king disaster. I made a terrible mistake. I am so sorry I am so useless. I f**king hate myself.’

MORE: Subscribe to The New European for 13 weeks for £24 and get a free signed copy of the full diary from Alastair Campbell

He then tried to explain what had happened. ‘I knew she was trouble. I couldn’t understand why I was being pushed towards her. She had been heckling and Sue was pushing me towards her. She was coming out with stuff about immigrants and Rochdale being a third world country and then I get in the car and…’

He then went into a rage at the media. ‘They have got all their dreams come true. Everything they have been working for – ‘he’s useless. He can’t communicate. He’s weird’.’ Then into a thing about the mic. ‘The sound guy was happy not to use it because it was after I got in the car. But he was over-ruled. F**king Sky. F**king media. This is what our f**king politics has become. They can do anything and we let them. Would they have cameras and mics in the bath if they could? Yes. They are f**king evil.’

Dire. He wanted to do a press conference. Peter [Mandelson] and I both felt that was the wrong thing to do. He had called her from the car. ‘She is not going to be helpful. I tried to apologise but she was not really having it.’

Tony Blair on stage for the start of the 1994 Labour Party conference. – Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

At one point he sat down and put his head back and I could see his eyes fill with tears and a look of abject pain creased his face.

It was pretty horrible to watch. This is the end, he said. After everything else I now have this as an added stain on my character. It is the culmination of a concerted character assassination. ‘You know what it’s like,’ he said.

I said I do but they can only do to you what you let them. We have to move on. He said they will say it is the defining moment of the campaign. David [Muir, GB’s director of political strategy], Douglas [Alexander, the election co-ordinator], Sue [Nye, GB’s diary secretary], Justin [Forsyth, strategic communications and campaigns director] and Iain [Bundred, GB’s political spokesman] came in at various points. I can’t remember who first suggested he went to the house to see her but he seemed keen. He wanted to go straight away.

He said he didn’t think of people like that, so why did he say it? People were shocked because it was a perfectly good conversation. All added to the sense he was a bit odd.

I sensed GB needed to do this to get it out of his system. I called Rachel Kinnock [Downing Street events organiser] who was on her way with Anna Healy [party press officer] to the house and asked her to suss out whether the woman – she was called Gillian Duffy – would welcome a visit, and suss whether she felt she would use it against him. It was already a circus there. She spoke to the woman, who agreed she could come in and then agreed that GB could come.

Peter was out doing a pretty good job both defending GB, and the handling, but it was a game-changer for the worse. He texted me to say those who criticised us for not allowing him to meet members of the public might now reflect. He was now so down on him that he could see no good in him doing anything other than going. What? Now? Why not? The thing is lost, hopeless. He said he was going to be totally humiliated. It was the worst possible end.

And all because he said something he didn’t mean. It really was dire.

He went to bed about half ten. It felt like a long slow death we were witnessing. The fight had gone from him and his team. David said he had never felt so low. I was deliberately trying to stay a little bit detached. But I really hated the idea of the Tories winning. Deep down I had always thought they would. But this was it now.

Thursday April 29

[Preparing for the television party leaders’ debate with in Birmingham]

Grace [AC’s daughter] called just after I got up and we had a lovely chat which cheered me up. She said she felt sorry for GB and Sky were shits. She thought a lot of people would be on his side. But the media would not let go with this.

Michael Sheehan [strategist] sent through an email saying he should tap the microphone tonight and say ‘is this on?’

GB arrived at the hotel and wanted us to fire questions at him, then, after an hour or so, we started to work on the opening statement. I showed it to GB, basically saying let rip. Unshackled and go for it. He went for a bath and then came back for a final quick-fire session which went pretty well. I said to him before we left he really had to get psyched up. Energy. Don’t worry about the papers, which were bound to give it to DC [David Cameron].

Just think about the public, the undecideds out there. Go for it. And don’t hold back on the Tory risk.

The debate went OK I felt. I genuinely thought he did better, even if he looked tired. The Clegg act was beginning to grate.

Cameron was doing much more direct into-camera stuff but I found it extraordinary the extent to which he didn’t answer questions. The other two looked good though and GB did, especially towards the end, look tired. GB was still smiling too much. We had done a line saying it was GB’s to win and he won it, and I felt he did well enough to go for that. Peter went to the spin room before it finished and I did the second wave. A security guy at the top of the stairs asked me about Burnley v Liverpool – ‘We’ve had it,’ I said. [A 0-4 defeat relegated Burnley]. Some Tory bright spark overheard and was straight out saying I had said GB had had it.

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Friday April 30

The mood in HQ was pretty low. The Tories were generating a sense of energy, that they had won the debate and were on the last stretch. Media totally up their backsides now. GB was joined by several ministers for a poster launch which, as Alistair [Darling] was speaking, attracted some guy yelling, then someone bashed into his car, and we had a metaphor for the campaign.

Lots of black humour settling in at Vic Street [Labour HQ, Victoria Street, London]. When Peter M and DA [Douglas Alexander] came back I told them that there was almost a demob-happy sense around the place. There was no real fight left there. People were starting to take pictures of each other and chat in little groups. At one point I shouted out that there was a fight on. TB [Tony Blair] came in and got a fantastic reception on both sides of the building. Went round to say hello to everyone, then did a speech. Said that we could still turn it around. Talked of some of the things we had done because we won. Praised the party machine.

Whacked the Tories as unchanged. Said that we had to stop this Lib Dem nonsense. ‘If it is possible to be profoundly vacuous that is what they are.’

Got a fabulous ovation.

I had suggested getting cameras in but Peter and Douglas were worried it would be bad for GB, morale and otherwise. Afterwards we had a little chat, first on the idea of framing the election as a series of big choices. Peter felt all GB would do was go for risk. It was all he wanted to talk about. We needed a positive in all this which currently wasn’t there. I worked on a few message lines for PG [(Lord) Philip Gould, pollster and strategist] to test. Also working on TB article. GB called a few times ahead of his Paxman interview. I suggested he say we were the only serious choice. Tories wrong values and policies. Lib Dems right values wrong policies. We were the only ones with a plan.

Gary Gibbon [journalist] had done a blog on the way the pollsters weighted the debate instant polls. It made the audience more Tory for various reasons.

I told GB. He sounded fairly mellow. Same chat. General feeling growing that it was all over.

Sunday May 2

Peter felt I should be on the road giving GB his words the whole time. He said he didn’t listen to any of the people with him. Patrick Loughran [advisor] said he would only listen to me, Peter or Ed Balls. I wasn’t sure it would be a very good image for him to have me getting on and off a helicopter with him, telling him what to say.

Slight feeling of people having given up. Not many in the office. Papers not as bad as they might have been but the Tories were definitely putting over a sense of unstoppable momentum.

I had a long chat with Peter on what to do on election night. Both Patrick and PG felt that we should, in defeat, frame the result from the word go. There had to be a focus on the centre ground. We were punished for leaving it.

The danger was Ed Miliband, Patrick thought, who would position himself between Ed Balls and David [Miliband]. Neil [Kinnock] had already seemingly come out for Balls, having backed [Harriet] Harman. It was clear that there would be a fair bit of blood-letting and that they would be trying to blame Peter and me. He said the line already being run was that since Peter came back he acted as a block on all the things that GB wanted to do. In other words he was prevented from being himself. It was nonsense but it would be run.

Monday May 3

TB out campaigning again. Tamworth. Redditch. Said he found it all quite odd as to what was going on. He was not really sure himself. He felt that a lot of the don’t knows were basically deserting us but didn’t want to say. He felt that the party needed to be rebuilt from bottom up, that we had to get a new generation in and do the whole job all over again.

Wednesday May 5

It was odd how much I had warmed to GB in the last few days. He was a strong character in lots of ways but also very vulnerable in his own way, and insecure. But I did admire the way he kept going, even if I could see so many weaknesses. He was not a modern politician.

He was better suited to a different era, but he was who we had and that was that. TB felt, and was probably right, that we could have won with a different leader. But GB had seen them all off and we were where we were. The feedback coming in from round the country was very mixed. The Tories had slipped a bit during the campaign, but they had been ahead for ages and there was nobody really saying, or at least thinking, that we were going to win. But the polls had been steadily pointing towards a hung parliament. There was also a bit of anti-Cameron, Anyone But Cameron, coming through. Maybe too late. A bit like GB momentum.

Thursday May 6, election day

Fiona’s [Miller, AC’s partner] first words of the day – ‘I just feel so sad’. As I left the house, Grace said ‘Don’t be too sad if we lose.’ In a way I felt OK. I didn’t sense the Tories were going to wipe us out, even if they won.

For straight defeat GB had already sent through a draft which had him resigning immediately. For hung, he wanted to offer the Libs a deal on PR referendum and working together on the economy. For win it was unalloyed triumph over expectation.

Nobody was really thinking we could win. But what we could do was stop them winning an overall majority. We had to really go for it. It would be hard though now.

I did a round of interviews downstairs, including [Adam] Boulton and I said the TV had been biased. He went off on one, so I did a bit of get off your high horse, you can give not take. The media has been biased etc. Got loads of tweets in support. Sky really had been an outrage.

Peter, PG and I were then in the Hamlyn Room at HQ just assessing and watching. Great the kids were there, only Georgia [Gould, PG’s daughter] and Calum [Campbell, AC’s son] missing.

Real up and down night. Looked at one stage that Balls might lose. He survived. Peter did one of his ‘never mind’ looks. Had seen Whelan [GB spokesman] at the ITV do but I found it hard to be civil to him. I just couldn’t be bothered. That politics had to die whatever happened.

GB spoke pretty well at his count. Slight air of resignation but that might be tiredness. Cameron and Clegg didn’t look too great either. Harriet popped in. ‘Ah, your girlfriend,’ said Peter. Fiona and Grace went home about 3. GB arrived closer to 5. He came in, all the staff lined up, he shook hands, said nice things re Harriet and Peter, made a good speech about how proud he was of what we had done – the campaign had been up against it but here we were, not out of it, difficult decisions to face but let us be proud of the past 13 years and of the campaign we have fought. Spoke well. I still felt it would end with him gone and Cameron in there. But there was still fight in him.

Bacon sandwiches in the Hamlyn Room. A bit of salmon and cheese. GB, Peter, me, Sue, David, one or two others popping in. Greg Cook [pollster] gave us the score of where we were now. Told us of some of the possibles ahead.

Looked like the Tories were a fair few short of a majority. Our only hope was alliance. He was scribbling away with his mad felt pen. Totting up numbers. Asking if we could get Unionists on the phone.

GB had spoken to the hacks on the plane and had made clear we had to see all the results in and we had to be clear that we would manage the situation through. I asked if there had been any contact with Clegg.

Peter M was rolling his eyebrows a bit at GB. He was saying that there was no way Clegg would speak to us first. He had been clear in the campaign that he would speak to the largest party first. That was the Tories.

I was in email exchange with Jeremy Heywood, who felt that Lib–Lab was just as viable as minority Tory government. Greg felt it would be close to the exit poll. We did well in Wales and Scotland. We were doing badly in the Midlands. Immigration definitely hit us, though we won in Rochdale. GB was gulping down bacon sandwiches as he wrote all the numbers out. More losses coming in. He wondered if he should say something tonight. I said he should go back to No. 10. We put out a line that says that he was going back to No. 10 to get some rest and take stock. It was light when he left.

Still good news and bad coming in. I really felt the Tories would not be delirious with this. The word was Clegg was deflated too, and not really sure what to do. Neil K doing lots of telly and sending me messages saying we were saying same things. Had to watch the PR front though. Not sure we would want to promise PR as the price of keeping GB a bit longer. Charles Clarke [former home secretary] lost his seat. I send him a message saying sorry.

He sent one back to the effect that if we had done what we should have done a while back instead of letting one man’s vanity take us down, we would not be in this mess. He said don’t let anyone tell you the result is anything other than a disaster.

Margaret Hodge easily saw off the BNP which was great news and delivered a really hard message to Nick Griffin too. In some seats we were doing really well. In the council elections we seemed to be doing well. In some areas we were doing badly. But Tories nowhere in Scotland or Wales, poor in the north, London. I was tinkering with some of the draft scenarios. But what was clear was that we would definitely be in hung parliament territory. I went home around 7 to get a bit of sleep.

Saturday May 8

TB called early on. You do realise he has to go, he said. For once the party interest and the national interest are aligned. He lost. He did not win. He has been rejected. He did fine yesterday but if he clings on in some rag-bag rainbow coalition it will be awful. Added to which if the price is PR we will never win again.

He said the definition of a Lib Dem is someone who is not serious and cannot make a decision. They will run a mile at the first hint of trouble. They cannot do it. They cannot govern. I said GB had to be allowed to explore and he had to be able to plan with dignity.

TB said fine, but we both know all he is thinking about is how does he survive? He was pretty clear about it. I said so what is my best advice? He said you have to be supportive but you do need to try to have an honest conversation.

GB had called me earlier and asked me to go in at 2. He said he was sure Clegg could not do a deal with the Tories because of PR. GB was in my old office with Peter, Andrew [Adonis], Jeremy [Heywood, senior civil servant, principal private secretary to GB], Sue, David, Gavin Kelly [deputy chief of staff], Stewart Wood [advisor to GB], Iain Bundred. Not a good sign. He liked big meetings when he was trying to avoid honest discussion. He clearly didn’t really want to go. He asked me to have a private chat. We sat at his desk and he said I still think I can do this. Clegg is not ruling it out. We let them run the course with the Tories and then see. I said fine but you need to think through if it is sustainable. I worried he would hang on and on and we would all be weakened.

Sunday May 9

TB sent an email early on saying he had had a ‘scary and eerie’ chat with GB who was clearly hell-bent on staying. The election was but a minor inconvenience in his plans to stay in power. TB was also talking to Paddy [Ashdown, former Lib Dem leader] who was clearly briefing and to some extent guiding and mentoring Clegg.

Paddy was of the view that GB had to go as part of any deal. Also that though they would let the talks with the Tories go on, the Libs would prefer to be with us than with the Tories. TB and I chatted a few times and said we had to see that though there may be short-term interest in keeping GB, long term it was a disaster.

Gordon Brown relinquished his role as Labour leader on May 10, and the following day the Lib Dems struck a deal with the Conservatives. Brown resigned as PM on the evening of May 11, and the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition took office.

MORE: Subscribe to The New European for 13 weeks for £24 and get a free signed copy of the full diary from Alastair Campbell

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