Saturday 20 January 2018

Review: Memoir: The Burden of Power: Countdown to Iraq by Alastair Campbell

Hutchinson, £25, hbk, 752 pages
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown

A theme of this book is that the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was like a marriage: a marriage that had broken down. Personally I'm not sure that marriage is the right word: for one thing, you don't get any sense that they ever liked each other in the first place. In any case, Blair couldn't have been married to Brown, because he was already married to someone else: Alastair Campbell.

As in his previous diaries, Campbell (New Labour's Director of Communications and Strategy, 1997-2003) writes about Blair -- or "TB", as he refers to him -- in the manner of a long-suffering wife: rolling his eyes at his eccentricities ("he was plucking at his guitar rather annoyingly"), sighing at his foibles ("his mix of bluster and head-in-the-sand was really irritating"), asking himself why he bothers. But you never doubt that he loves him, and will do so till death them does part.

He's at his most wife-like when tutting at Blair's outfits. He does this a lot. "TB was in very odd-looking shorts"; "He was wearing the most extraordinary collection -- a white collarless Nicole Farhi shirt, plain blue trousers and England football slippers"; "I said what a prat he looked".

Blair sometimes fights back, at one point accusing Campbell of having "a bias against style". On another occasion, he says Campbell is "just jealous -- how many prime ministers have got a body like this?" At the time, he is wearing nothing but a pair of green and yellow underpants.

The Burden of Power, the fourth volume of Campbell's diaries, takes us from 9/11 to Campbell's resignation two years later, via Afghanistan, Iraq and David Kelly, the UK weapons expert who took his own life after being outed as the source of a contentious BBC report on the UK government's Iraq dossier.

The book is subtitled Countdown to Iraq, and a countdown is exactly what it feels like: for all the negotiations between Blair and George W Bush, invasion always seems inexorable. This is a reminder of how much time they spent trying to sell war, and how little time they spent planning what to do once they'd got their wish.

Campbell's prose matches his character -- ceaseless action, not much reflection. He has little flair for colour and almost no time for jokes. He writes as he lives, at full pelt. To paraphrase: "This happened and then this happened and then this happened and TB was furious with GB who was furious with TB."

"GB", of course, is Gordon Brown. The most remarkable feature of the Blair-Brown relationship is how repetitive it is. Brown at least is consistent -- he hates Blair all the time. Blair, on the other hand, seems locked in an interminable cycle of feelings about his chancellor, rival and foe.

It goes as follows: Brown is impossible; I've decided to sack him; I can't sack him because for all his flaws he's a brilliant politician, nearly as brilliant as I am. Again and again and again, all the way through, the same pattern of frustration, resolution and climb-down. "[Blair] was still making up his mind about GB," you read, in numbed disbelief, on page 565.

As a matter of fact, the book is repetitive in general. People are always telling Campbell he's just like Roy Keane. Robin Cook (Blair's Foreign Secretary) and Clare Short (at that time the UK's International Development Secretary) are always on the brink of resigning. Blair is always confiding to Campbell that he only ever wanted to fight two elections, but that he might yet be forced, for the good of the country, to fight a third.

Fiona Millar, Campbell's girlfriend, is always telling Campbell he has to quit. He almost always agrees, but takes nearly 700 pages to get around to it. God knows how he withstood all this repetitiveness for so long. It's a wonder the book isn't called "The Boredom of Power".

Not that it's always boring to read. Like power itself, it's horribly addictive. If you go into the book loathing Campbell, you're unlikely to be any keener on him by the end of it, although you may gain some grudging respect for his Terminator-like relentlessness, not to mention his unshakeable self-certainty.

The poor soul is forever bemoaning the "culture of negativity" in modern politics, a problem he blames entirely on the media, rather than on, say, Alastair Campbell.

There are some exquisitely weird tidbits about Blair. Apparently when he's nervous he starts speaking French. Flying into Bangladesh, he decides his suit's too crumpled, so he sends a minion to get off the plane first, find a well dressed man in the airport, and bring him on board. Soon Blair and a complete stranger are stripping off in front of each other so that Blair can wear his suit.

"It wasn't perfect," records Campbell, ever the unimpressed wife, "but it wasn't far off."


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