Diana is dead -- I have to express what the people are feeling
The death of Princess Diana presented a tough challenge for prime minister Tony Blair -- and also for his PR director
I got to bed, and at around two I was paged by media monitoring: 'Car crash in Paris. Dodi [al-Fayed] killed. Di hurt. This is not a joke.'
Then TB (Tony Blair) came on. He had been called by Number 10 and told the same thing. He was really shocked. He said she was in a coma and the chances are she'd die. I don't think I'd ever heard him like this.
He was full of pauses, then gabbling a little, but equally clear what we had to do. We started to prepare a statement. We talked through the things we would have to do tomorrow, if she died. By now the phones were starting from the press, and I didn't sleep. Then about an hour later Nick Matthews, (senior duty clerk) called and said simply 'She's dead. The prime minister is being told now'. I went through on the call. Angus Lapsley was duty private secretary and was taking him through what we knew. But it was hard to get beyond the single fact of her death.
'I can't believe this. I just can't believe it,' said TB. 'You just can't take it in, can you?' And yet, as ever with TB, he was straight on to the ramifications. By the end of the call we had sorted all we had to do practically.
There was also the issue of the chasing photographers. He said we should say that is not for now. We agreed to say nothing until a formal announcement but then Robin (Cook) in Manila was about to get on a plane and was unable to resist making the announcement first, and raised the issue of the press. TB's mind was whirring. We had I don't know how many conversations, and they went round and round, veering from the emotional -- I can't believe this -- to the practical -- what we were doing in Paris, when should he speak to the Queen? -- to the political -- what impact would this have? He thought he should probably speak to the Queen and Charles. 'Those poor boys.'
It seemed an age between us being told of the death and the French interior minister and Michael Jay [UK ambassador to France] announcing it. PA finally broke it through 'British sources'. TB had been late learning of the actual accident because he hadn't heard the phone and then when the cops were asked to wake him up, they thought it was a hoax. Number 10 had to go through Scotland Yard to get on to Durham and explain it was serious and the cops would have to bang on his door.
Once we knew she was dead, we were into a seemingly never-ending round of calls. At about 4, I got a flavour of the royal Establishment's approach when Angus and I had a conference call with Robert Fellowes [private secretary to the Queen]. 'You know about Diana, do you? She's dead.' I said yes. We were sorting when TB should speak to the Queen. It was all very matter-of-fact and practical, though he too, like TB earlier, said 'Those poor boys'. TB and I agreed a statement to put out as soon as it was confirmed that she was dead. It was pretty emotional. TB was genuinely shocked. It was also going to be a test for him, the first time in which the country had looked to him in a moment of shock and grief. We went round and round in circles about what he should say, and also how. I didn't like the idea of him walking out to do something just for this purpose and we agreed to do nothing until he went to the church in Trimdon in the morning.
Anything before that would look tacky. I didn't want TB to pile in too much. I was pissed off with RC at having jumped the gun on the official announcement. The phones were going all the time and then at around 4 I got a rash of calls asking if it was true that she was dead, then the dreadful wait for the official announcement. I didn't like the position of knowing she was dead and having to fob people off the whole time. . . . We agreed that it was fine to be emotional, and to call her the People's Princess. Talk about the good she did, how people were feeling. He kept saying 'I can't really believe this has happened. People will be in a state of real shock. There will be grief that you would not get for anyone else'. He said that if the Queen died there would be huge sadness and respect but this will lead to an outpouring of grief. 'She will become an icon straight away. She will live on as an icon.' He felt that it happened as she was fairly close to the height of her appeal.
Dodi was probably a step too far for a lot of people. Had she got married, had another child maybe, she'd have started to fall in popularity.
But this will confirm her as a real icon. He kept coming back to his words. 'What I have to do today is try to express what the country is feeling. There will be real shock.' We talked about the last time they met at Chequers and the letters she sent afterwards. She was a real asset, a big part of 'New Britain'. But somehow he knew it was going to end like this, well before her time. He asked me to fix up for him to speak to the Queen and Charles. Nick [Matthews] called to say the Palace was saying official mourning and a state funeral.
I went down for breakfast and seeing it on TV made it harder to take in. I was tired and felt really emotional now, and drained, and started crying. TB spoke to the Queen. Then he came on the TV as he and the family arrived at church. It was a very powerful piece of communication.
The People's Princess was easily the strongest line and the people in the studio afterwards were clearly impressed, and felt he really had caught the mood . . . Very careful thought was going to have to be given to every detail of the funeral and already some of the problems were becoming apparent. There was a suggestion the Spencers [Diana's family] might want a private funeral, which people would inevitably take as a bit of a hit on the Royals, and in any event the public were clearly going to be expecting a big event.
Diana's former private secretary, Michael Gibbins, came later and he seemed a bit upset and withdrawn, and said she wouldn't have liked all these people sitting around talking about her funeral. He spoke to her a few days ago and she was really happy. 'This Dodi character may have been a bit odd but he certainly made her happy.' . . . Finally, the plane arrived carrying the body . . . Charles came in with Diana's sister. He looked sad, and not surprisingly was finding the small talk difficult.
Monday, September 1
The coverage was enormous of course. TB's contribution had gone down really well. The Herald Tribune's main headline was 'World Mourns the People's Princess'. The phrase had really taken hold, and was becoming part of the language immediately. We had to be careful though that it doesn't look like we are writing our script, rather than hers . . . Every issue had the potential to bring its own difficulties. Fellowes said there was a dispute: who should go to the interment at Althorp [the Spencers' family home]? Who should walk behind the coffin? Would the boys be able to do it? (Stephen) Lamport said he wasn't sure Charles would want to do it. Fellowes said, what would happen if Charles walked and someone in the crowd turned on him? Janvrin was clear you could not do it without Charles Spencer [Diana's brother].
Wednesday, Sept 3
Some of the papers were beginning to turn against the Royals. The issue of no flag at half mast, the family staying in Balmoral, it all had The Sun fulminating for example. . . . (Robin) Janvrin called and said he was pretty depressed. They had clearly put to the Queen the issue of lowering the flag but it was a broken tradition too far . . . Also, there was a sense of there being Di people and Charles people and it was not easy to bridge. . . . Penny Russell-Smith, Sandy Henney [press secretary to the Prince of Wales] and Mark Bolland kept me back and said they had a real fear this was becoming 'the people against the family'.
The press were really trying to push us into the story being the Royals remote and stiff, and I deflected all that, as did TB in his OK doorstep. He had a phone call with Charles and said afterwards he sounded really done in. 'One day I'll tell you the whole story,' he said. He was still not clear if he was going to follow the coffin. He said it was really grim up there. There was a lot of pressure building against the Queen and the family.
TB said they could sense that there was real change among the public. They would have to respond to it. We could help only if they went for it and realised they had to respond. In a way, while some may have seen Diana as their problem, in some ways she had been like a shield.
Thursday, September 4
The mood was really turning against the Royals and they seemed helpless in the face of it. It wasn't just the media, but the mood out on the Mall was dreadful . . . It was still not clear who among the princes would walk behind the coffin, and I suspected it would not be clear until the last minute.
But what they were proposing would certainly help deal with the mood outside. They realised that if William doesn't go behind the coffin, they have a real problem because Charles would have to go behind the coffin with Charles Spencer. There is no way he can do this without the boys, he said . . .
William was refusing to speak to anyone and he was consumed by a total hatred of the media. It was pretty clear that he really felt strongly about the role of the media vis-à-vis his mother, and would not want to be doing anything that he felt was for them. He was being strong and clear about what he wanted. But as TB said, they were just one of the things he would have to deal with as King, and he'd need help.
The exact line-up behind the cortège was still not clear. Prince Charles spoke to TB again and it was clear that they were still hopeful that William would walk behind the coffin. This was probably because Charles Spencer would not go in the car with Charles. There was an idea the family should just stand together at the Palace as the coffin went by but that would look like they were separate from the event, just part of the crowd, which was absurd, and TB pretty much said so. . . . I sensed that the boys were holding firm, and they seemed to feel it was being done for the media and the public, not for their mother.
Friday, September 5
William was the key to it all now. He said he was in a better mood than yesterday when he came back from the moors. We walked back through the ever-growing crowds to Number 10 and there was no doubt the mood was improving, and the ugliness would melt away once they came back and did their stuff.
As the Queen walked around in front of the Palace, looking at flowers and talking to people, you could sense the pressure lifting, the mood changing. Anna Ford [TV journalist and newsreader] was doing the live stuff and said as much. William and Harry did well, so did the others, and the mood was changing totally . . .
TB had to leave for the Abbey for a rehearsal and he met Charles Spencer, who was really fired up re the media. He said William wanted to become a recluse because he hated the media. Both William and Harry had done really well on the walkabout and my sense after the reaction they got was that they would want to walk behind the coffin.
I got home in time to see the scenes of the coffin being moved, which was very powerful. The combination of the Queen's broadcast, William's walkabout and her walkabout had got things back on track.
*Extracted from Alastair Campbell Diaries Volume Two: Power And The People 1997-1999 by Alastair Campbell, published by Hutchinson at €29.99.