ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: My weird dreams about Gordon Brown
PUBLISHED: 12:00 01 October 2018
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In the second part of our exclusive serialisation of Alastair Campell's diaries, it's 2008 and Gordon Brown is in No. 10 but looking far from secure. Campbell is out of government, but under pressure to return. Meanwhile, close friend Philip Gould calls with dreadful news.
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Tuesday January 29, 2008
PG [Philip Gould, political pollster and strategist] called. I answered it, just saying “Can I call you back?”
“OK,” he said, “it’s quite urgent.” When I called back, he just said straight out, “I’ve been told I’ve got cancer.” F**k.
He said he had been having trouble swallowing for some weeks, had first been told he had an infection but further tests had shown a malignant tumour in the gullet. It sounded grim as hell but he was being amazingly Philipish about it all. He said it wasn’t a great cancer to get but he totally bought into this idea that you have to stay positive, and the people around you have to stay positive too.
I told Fiona [Alastair’s partner] and our kids, who were really shaken. Fiona said it was impossible to imagine life without Philip around all the time.
I went to see Philip and he was being very upbeat. But it did not sound great to me, and I sensed a real worry in his eyes, for all the positive upbeat talk. He had to have days of tests now to see if it had spread. F and I were out for dinner with Brendan [Foster, the businessman, commentator and former athlete]. Nice evening but I couldn’t stop thinking about Philip. I don’t know why, given so many people survive cancer these days, but I feared the worst.
Monday March 10
A dreadful call from Gazza [former footballer Paul Gascoigne]. I had texted him when he was sectioned, just to say if he wanted to have a chat etc., and I assumed he had not had his phone with him.
But now he was out, staying at his uncle Paul’s, and he came on with a real rambling kind of call, words slurred, which could have been tranquillisers I guess, but equally it could have been drink. I asked if he was drinking and he said not much, which was never a good sign. He said he had been stitched up by Jimmy Five Bellies [Jimmy Gardner, Gascoigne’s childhood friend], but I couldn’t understand how.
It was one of those calls where I was trying to ask rational questions but he would just fly off in another direction. He was going on about how all he had been thinking about when he was locked up was wanting to play football with me and the kids in the garden at No. 10.
He was describing goals he was making and scoring, and how the Pope and the president would be watching from inside a meeting with Tony.
All really sad. I just said I was glad he was out, but he really needed to look after himself. His uncle came on and said he was doing fine, better than he had been, but in the background he was shouting out all sorts of rubbish. It was so hard to know what to do.
Saturday April 19
Out for dinner with PG and Gail [Rebuck, PG’s wife]. St Albans in Regent Street. Jeremy King [restaurateur] told me he had seen a travel piece by [singer] Lily Allen’s dad Keith [actor] saying he saw me as his ideal travelling companion to find out what I was really like. Nice enough evening though I was feeling depressed, and feeling worse for feeling like that given what PG was facing. He was pretty philosophical about things. I sensed though that the dinner was part of a round of goodbyes without saying goodbye. He reeled off all the people he had been seeing and wanted to see. We shared a cab back and he just got out of the cab and went into the house. I said it was just his way. Fiona thought he was avoiding emotional farewells. Earlier Philip was saying Ken [Livingstone] could recover fine but GB [Gordon Brown] was looking dead. Ed Balls was convinced he could be next leader and he was looking round the Cabinet table and could see nobody he did not think he could push over.
Friday May 2
I called Alex [Ferguson] re GB and whether to work for him. “Off your head. Don’t go near it. You’ve got reputation and prestige because of all the things you’ve done and you could lose it. If you thought you could turn it all around, fine, but can you, can you really change what is happening? He is set in his ways and you don’t have that same relationship you had with Tony, who would always listen. I really would worry – for your reputation, and also your ‘marriage’. Look back at the stick you got, and the pressure you were under, and that was when you were winning. It’ll all be back and not in a winning environment. You’ll go f**king crazy.”
Monday May 5
Alex called. He said, re GB asking me to go back, Jock Stein once counselled him against taking on too much too soon by saying “Everyone thinks they can be John Wayne but there is only one John Wayne. The rest of us have to put left leg forward then right and just try to move in the right direction”. He said GB will be trying to make you feel like John Wayne riding in to rescue him. But there is only one John Wayne.
Friday May 9
All day on and off working on a note to GB. I had decided I could not go back in the way he wanted me to. It was beyond me to make the difference he thought I could. But I made clear he should do a better job of defending the record and that meant at some point saying TB [Tony Blair] had been the right man for the job as a way in to a proper defence of the record. I didn’t think he would get heard about the future, or get a hearing from the people we were losing, until he had done that. He had to focus on devising clear objectives and strategy to meet them, and only then thinking through the tactical considerations about how to do so. At the moment it all seemed too tactical.
He needed, fast, to get an agreed set of objectives, strategies and messages that resonate and connect across the board, whether they are short-term popular or not.
n On objectives, the political focus has to be in renewing and strengthening Labour – organisation, finances, policy, centre of gravity – to get in proper shape for the next election. Rebuilding the party.
n On style, the objective must be to re-establish as a given the competence and stability GB built his reputation on when chancellor.
n On policy, the aim must be to agree the small number of genuinely major priorities – economy No.1 – and focus relentlessly upon them.
It’s showing the government has a coherent and workable plan to ensure the public properly understand economic events, and more importantly that Britain emerges well from a global downturn, with opportunities and living standards improving.
If you do the above three well we will be in a much better position. I said he should then agree which are the other major issues to focus on, and recommended, to play to his strengths, these should relate to further modernisation in public services. Poverty. Social mobility. Pensions. Energy policy. Climate change. Modern challenges requiring modern responses. And all dependent on values of interdependence closer to a Labour view of the world than a Tory view. I suggested that all the rest, all his attempts at the touchy-feely stuff, he should just leave to one side. “It is not what you are there for”.
Friday May 30
GB called. He was then back on the chat-up. He said I was “uniquely placed and capable” to make that argument. He wanted to see me again to discuss these issues. I felt a real sense of dread. I really did not want to be doing this. But it was hard to refuse point blank to help when he was so insistent and when it was clear the Tories were on the march. Ed [Miliband] came round and we had 40 minutes or so. I gave him my analysis and said much the same as I had said in my note to GB, with maybe a bit on top. He said it was important I didn’t go OTT with GB as he was pretty fragile. I said there was no point sugar-coating or pussyfooting. If he didn’t change, he was done for. He felt there really wasn’t any desire for a contest or a change of leadership but he accepted things were not good.
The media was a real problem. I said the media would be less of a problem if GB had a proper strategy and a proper operation. Lack of capacity at the centre was a problem. He agreed the younger ones had not come through, there was little Tory attack and too much division.
I asked how DM [David Miliband] was. He said enjoying being foreign secretary but not enjoying the general situation. He wasn’t speaking terribly warmly about him. I think he worried DM might be plotting to make a move.
Monday June 2
I had not slept well. Lots of bad dreams. I had read a weird book by Philip Roth last night, The Dying Animal. Somehow the title – though not the highly sexual content of the book – got mixed up with GB. Dying animal.
In one of the dreams, he was like a big beast being shot down. He had his white shirt hanging out, he had bloodstains and ink stains all over them, he was holding his guts, which were spilling out, and he was saying “I refuse to die, I refuse to die, you have to help me keep going”. It was horrible.
Later, I had a funny text exchange with Peter [Mandelson]. I asked him for his analysis on a postcard. “Manageable but not salvageable under GB. And difficult under any of the alternatives. Et tu?” I said I agreed and thought the alternatives had weaknesses. He felt DM was the only one, possibly [Alan] Milburn. “I assume you are speaking to David. He needs to be more leaderish to move the market.”
I said I felt they were all a bit all over the place. “GB lacks strong advice around him so he has lost confidence.” Send for Mandy, I said. Or Alastair, he replied.
Thursday June 19
Session with DS [David Sturgeon Alastair’s psychiatrist]. A bit same old same old. The pills had definitely kept me on a more even keel. I said I had been neither up nor down. He said is that good or bad? I said it was neither good nor bad. Or maybe it was both. Good because I was on an even keel, had not plunged down for a while now, bad because of a lack of intensity in how I felt about anything.
I just felt flat most of the time. Not suicidal, not even depressed, just a bit numb. He still felt a major project would come along and fill a gap, and in the meantime I was hibernating.
Walking back home, spotted an anti-war protester and I could tell he was intent on no good. He came into my face, said I was a f**king bastard. I walked on, just ignored him, but he came after me, glass in one hand, bottle in another. A guy who saw what was going on, in his thirties maybe, moved in between us, getting his body in the way of the protester without actually touching him, and I walked on. But it seemed to wind him up even more and he pushed past the guy and kicked out at me, missing the first time, but then landing one right on my calf. Another guy got involved now, stepping in and saying to him “Hey, there is no need for that”, and off he went again, bastard, f**king bastard. I managed to make my mind go into slow motion and I just walked away.
Thursday October 2
GB was really piling on the pressure. Couple of calls, and at the end of the second, when he asked me if I could go in tonight or first thing tomorrow, I said I could, but I was not going to say yes to going into the Lords.
“Under any circumstances?” he asked. I said certainly not at the moment. He said why? I said for the same reasons as before – I had made promises not to go back full-on all the time, also that I had other things on and I was not sure I wanted to give it all up. He said OK, but let’s speak again tomorrow. He so clearly was not going to let go. I felt conflicted again. I both did not want to, and did want to, help. But my heart was not in it, that was the truth. I wanted to help but only on my terms. I sent Rory [Alastair’s son] an email setting out the upsides and downsides, partly as a way of thinking things through myself.
The downsides list was longer. Upsides – proper job and status, purpose and mission; could make a difference in sport; could make a difference politically. Downsides – have to give up everything else (books, speeches, business, any outside earnings); press and media back on my case big time; hardly any time at home/no freedom; would probably be caught between trying to do one job well as minister while what GB really wants me for is politics and campaign; no real sense of alliance with the core team; if we lose, my reputation as winner gets tarnished.
Rory said on that list the downsides outweighed the upsides, and that everyone would see through the ‘sports job’ as a GB ruse. But he felt there were two upsides I was overlooking – it would not be for as long a period of time as the last time he asked me. Also, it may just be I could turn it around, and my reputation would be enhanced.
He felt it all came down to how much the purpose, status and of course making a difference matter to you.
Friday October 3
Out walking on the Heath with Fiona and the dog when I started to get calls asking me to do interviews on ‘Peter Mandelson’s return to government’ [with a peerage, as business secretary]. It seemed odd that GB had been working on both of us simultaneously without telling me. Again it suggested the difficulty he had in working in a climate of trust. As TB said when I spoke to him later, it made more sense for Peter – unlike me, he was desperate to go to the Lords. Re me, he said the only questions were – could I make a contribution, and did I want to do it? I felt the answers were yes, and not really. So I would probably just keep on as I was for the time being, offering a bit of help from the sidelines.
Thursday December 18
Off to [PR guru] Matthew Freud’s. Chatted with Ken Livingstone who was writing his memoirs. Piers [Morgan] quite funny about his own fame. E.g. how Obama was trying to get his endorsement. Stuart Rose [CEO, Marks & Spencer] on how retail was worse than he had ever known.
George Osborne and wife arrived. I asked him who was going to win the election. “I don’t know,” he said. He seemed less confident than previous times I had seen him. DC [David Cameron] not there. He said he was in Yorkshire. Fiona thought it was probably a diplomatic absence, that all the toffing with Freud-Murdochs not good for them. Peter M there. Chatting with George, a real toff when close up. Vulnerable.
I asked Tim Bell [PR executive and advisor to Margaret Thatcher] same question – who will win and why? “You. Because the others are f**king useless.” Les Hinton [CEO of Dow Jones] and Rebekah [Wade, later Brooks; then editor of the Sun] who said I was the only Labour person not vetoed by the people who were co-hosting her New Year’s party. Never saw Elisabeth [Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Matthew Freud’s then wife] which was a bit weird. Dominic Lawson and wife. Peter Stothard [former editor of the Times] re the need to stop the Tories. He said I really had to go back and help. Quite happy to leave.
Alastair did eventually relent and agree to advise Gordon Brown on strategy and media appearances in the run-up to the 2010 election, where Labour was defeated, ending 13 years of the party in power. Philip Gould died in November 2011, aged 61.
My advice to Charlie Kennedy over his drinking
Monday April 13, 2009
Charles Kennedy [former leader of the Liberal Democrats], Sarah [his wife] and Donald [their son] arrived. Nice little boy. Real chip off the block. GB called again, said he would think about an apology [after revelations about a proposed smear campaign targeting Conservative MPs, linked to advisors of GB’s]. He said the Mail were trying to make it all about me. Let them, I said. He needed to make the right decisions to limit the fallout. The feedback from everywhere was dire. Not quite curtains but not far off.
Tessa [Jowell] said TB would see it in part as a vindication, as he was done in by these people. Lots of articles beginning to appear on there being two Gordons. Good GB who had a mission to change the world. Bad GB of [Charlie] Whelan, [Damian] McBride [both advisors linked to GB] etc. Tessa said he had had all the conviction sucked out of him by [Ed] Balls and his coterie. Charles was on good form. Scathing re the Lib Dems. Felt leading the party was to a large extent a waste of time. All that effort for so little. Enjoying being Rector of Glasgow Uni. Doing media – e.g. in the same film series as me for STV, doing one on the Caledonian Canal. Generally having a nice life.
We went for a walk and he was picking my brains about stopping drinking. He said he didn’t drink as much as people said but he had been drinking enough to worry about it. I asked if he ever worried about it. Yes, from time to time. Did he feel it affected his basic ability to do the job?
Sometimes, yes. Did he ever start out to have maybe one or two but end up absolutely smashed? Yes, but not all the time. I said my basic take was that if someone was worrying they had a problem, they did.
I asked if he was worried what other people would think if he admitted it? He said he didn’t feel it ought to come to that. He could maybe just cut it down and get on top of it. I said that is fine if you think you can, but do you? “Och aye, I think so.” He asked me how I had managed to stop. I said, well, in the early stages I had no choice because I was in hospital, and unless I wanted to hunt around for neat alcohol I wasn’t going to find any.
I said Dr [Ernest] Bennie had made me realise I had a problem and once I had that insight, even though I was tempted most days, I realised I had to deal with it. And then when I got into it, I started to take a lot of strength day by day without drink. Then after a year or two I felt like it was a big achievement and I loved it. “But you have the odd drink now,” he said, and I said I did, and I don’t know why. I wished I hadn’t. But it shows you can control it, he said. Maybe, but that might be because generally I am on more of an even keel. I am an addict and back then alcohol was one of my addictions.
I said if he felt he had a problem, he really ought to try to stop, and it was hard to do alone. He nodded and drew on his fag. I said you’re smoking too much too. Aye, I know that. I felt he was holding something back, that he wanted to tell me something more.
In the end I just said “Listen, if you think you’re an alcoholic, you need to admit it and face it”.
When I broke down on live TV
Sunday February 7, 2010
Didn’t sleep too well, worrying I had to make sure I did not lose my temper today [during TV interviews to promote new novel]. Andrew Marr and Adam Boulton were up there among the people who could get under my skin just for breathing when I was feeling a bit stressed out. I felt OK in the car on the way in, if a bit wired. Marr got under my skin when he said, with obvious resonance to the dossier, that I was there to talk about my “latest work of fiction”.
The fairly short bit of the interview on the novel was fine. As soon as he turned to Iraq, as expected, he started with the question about my clarification to [Sir Roderic] Lyne [panel member on the Chilcot inquiry] about whether I had said TB could justify saying Saddam [Hussein] “without doubt” had WMD [weapons of mass destruction] if the JIC [Joint Intelligence Committee] had said categorically he didn’t.
As he talked I felt myself feeling a bit weak and anxious. I sort of answered a couple of times but I was conscious of feeling odd, almost out of body, and I was worried I was going to get aggressive. I eventually had to stop to compose myself. All kinds of things were racing through my mind – shall I twat him? No. Was mum watching and would she be worrying? I thought at one point “I had my last breakdown relatively privately. This is live on the f**king telly”. It wasn’t a breakdown but it was f**king weird.
It was like I wasn’t there. At one point I was saying to myself, this is a long f**king silence. I also knew my voice was going to be weaker when I did speak. I managed to get something out, about TB being an honourable man. Then when he referred to 600k deaths survey as backed by the UN – a lie – I was kind of back in my stride. But I knew it was a ‘moment’. I somehow managed to hold it together to the end. I thought again about hitting him but left.
Emma [Mitchell, from publishers Random House] was waiting in the green room. “F**k me,’ I said, ‘that was f**king weird.’ I felt totally fine again but knew it was going to be seen as a big moment.
Once we got out of the building, the calls and texts started. I called Fiona. She had already spoken to Audrey [Fiona’s mother], who thought it was really powerful and human and it needed saying, the line about them settling scores and pursuing their own agenda. Fiona was nearer the mark. She felt it was a kind of mini breakdown moment and that people would think it revealed real doubts about Iraq beneath the swagger. Loads of the usual suspects started to call and text. Charlie [Falconer, former Lord Chancellor] ... ‘In admiration’! Godric [Smith, former AC deputy] saw later and he and Julia [wife] thought fine. Dave Brailsford [British cycling team performance director and friend of AC’s] – “There are c**ts and good guys. Ignore the c**ts and listen to the good guys. British Cycling and Team Sky right behind you. All the way.” Mark B [AC’s assistant] said the reaction on social media was pretty positive though I wondered if that was the kind of sympathy that doesn’t really help. The hatred of some on the right pouring out. [William] Hague [shadow foreign secretary] subtly twisting the knife. Fiona’s friend Jo was staying with us and felt it was fine because it was so human. Some of the commentators straight out saying it was either a deliberate ploy to provoke sympathy or a test bed for the more emotional GB on Piers [Morgan’s show].
Piers M called later, very funny, saying we had had a brilliantly-laid plan to make GB more emotional and have a big media campaign to drive the numbers on. “And then you come on blubbing and the whole thing is blown out of the water.”
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