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Interview with Alastair Campbell

Aired June 1, 2010 - 16:49:00   ET



BECKY ANDERSON, HOST (voice-over): In title, Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair's director of communications. But to much of the British public, he was Downing Street's second in command. Often dubbed the nation's unofficial deputy prime minister, the notorious spin doctor played a key role in behind the scenes decisions that defined the Blair years.

His role in managing the British government's case for war has been the subject of intense scrutiny and he was recently called to testify before the Iraq Inquiry.


ALASTAIR CAMPBELL, AUTHOR AND COMMUNICATOR: And if he asked me to jump off a building, I wouldn't have done it. If he asked me to do...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you serious?

CAMPBELL: No. If he asked me to do anything that I thought to be silly or improper, I wouldn't do it. But he never did.


ANDERSON: Campbell resigned over the issue in 2003, but continues to be a provocative voice in the political arena, most recently making news over a heated exchange with Sky News presenter Adam Boulton during last month's British election.


CAMPBELL: Adam, you're obviously upset at David Cameron's victory.

ADAM BOULTON, SKY NEWS: I'm not upset. I'm...


CAMPBELL: You are.


CAMPBELL: Adam, calm down.

BOULTON: I am calm...



ANDERSON: And this month, he's out with a new memoir of life in the Labour Party from 1994 to 1997, entitled "Prelude To Power." A tell- all from a true insider, Alastair Campbell is your Connector of the Day.


ANDERSON: And I sat down with Alastair Campbell and started by getting him to explain just how, against the odds, Tony Blair got to be leader of the Labour Party back in 1994.

This is what he said.


CAMPBELL: You see, the book starts on the day that John Smith, Tony's predecessor as Labour leader, died. That was a really difficult period for everybody. One, John Smith had died and people were very close to him so people were in mourning. They're -- they're grieving.

Secondly, you know as well as anybody in the 24 hour media age, the minute a leader dies, the focus is on to the next one. And literally that day, people were starting to speculate. And what was interesting is the day before, if you'd have asked lots and lots of people in the Labour Party, who's the next leader of the Labour Party, they'd have said Gordon Brown. And I think that it was difficult, for obvious reasons, for Gordon, because if you think about it, he's being seen as the main man. Tony himself, in the book, says that this is going to get difficult. The relationship is going to get mangled. He is the main man.

And getting to the position where actually everybody accepted it was going to be Tony, it was -- it was a very, very torturous period.

ANDERSON: You've been described by many as sort of acting deputy prime minister and acting deputy leader of the party. And you've been described as divisive.

Is that fair?

CAMPBELL: I don't know what it was. I had certainly provoked the media in a way that I think says more about them than it does about me. When you see old Adam Boulton at Sky News just having a sort of a live breakdown on television because I don't know what, you -- I don't know what -- what that says.

But basically I think, am I divisive?



Because I did the job in the way that I felt I had to do the job. In a media landscape, in Britain in particular, you know, historically, it has always been biased against Labour. And I was the person in a sense, with Peter Manuelson ), who came along and said, no, we're not going to put up with it any longer. We are going to set our own agenda. We're not going to let you do it for us. And we did it. And they don't like it.

ANDERSON: You've known, of course, David Cameron for a very long time, as well. And I'm thinking now back to when he started in politics, which is around the same time as these diaries were written.

What are your memories of the current prime minister now?

CAMPBELL: I don't know whether this says more about me -- me than him, but I don't remember him much from that period. When Norman Lamont was chancellor of the exchequer and David Cameron was his -- one of his special advisers, I don't remember having much to do with David Cameron.

It's safe to say I -- I -- I see him as somebody who studied us and studied Tony very, very closely. And I think he -- I think he genuinely felt that we did it through presentation and we didn't. We did it through strategic hard work and heavy lifting. And I think the reason he didn't get a majority is because he learned the long work -- the wrong lessons from us.

ANDERSON: What does new Labour need to do now to become electable again?

CAMPBELL: Too me -- too much of the talk post-May the 6th, when it was losing the election to David Cameron and Nick Clegg, has been about the things we did wrong. We did a hell of a lot right. And I think that we've just got to say the Blair-Brown era is over, but new Labour - - the Labour Party written in people's lives, in the center of British politics, that's where the agenda is going to be fought and won.

ANDERSON: let me get to some viewer questions, Alastair.

David from Vienna says: ) "When you felt the P.M. ) was ) heading the wrong way on an important issue. How often and how hard did you try to change his mind rather than just putting your shoulder to his wheels?," he says.

CAMPBELL: That is a -- a good one. Yes. I mean, funny enough, I was -- I was always very supportive of the general direction that he traveled, modernization, new Labour, anything which came within that framework, I was happy with.

I also did support him at -- on the big foreign policy issues -- Kosovo, September the -- post-September 11th, Iraq.

I think -- I suppose the areas where maybe he and I disagreed were in some of the public service agenda, particularly in relation to education and also sometimes the personal choices that he made.

ANDERSON: You talked about him in the book being star struck.

Is he still star struck?

CAMPBELL: No, I don't think he's star stuck, but sometimes -- I mean I'm -- I'm not a kind of -- I can't use this word on television, but you know the word that's in my kind, star (INAUDIBLE) five or six letters.

But, yes, sometimes he'd come up (INAUDIBLE) and he'd say I'm reading that Brian Ferry ) and you would see him wow! What a great life. And I think Tony sometimes was -- used to be slightly jealous of the -- of the lifestyles that rock stars could lead. Once you're in politics, there's just quite a lot of sacrifices you have to make about the things you can and can't do.

ANDERSON: Martin from Argentina says: ) "What do you think the current stance of the British government is over the special relationship with the US?"

CAMPBELL: Tony Blair would say that the special relationship closest to the Americans is just part of what the British prime minister has to do. To David Cameron now, how -- part of his job is to try to build a good and strong relationship with President Obama. So maybe David Cameron is going to work, but he'll have to work pretty hard, at getting that sort of relationship. I mean the BP situation has -- cannot have helped this. I -- I saw -- I mean I don't know the extent to which BP is seen -- obviously, it is a global company. But it's also -- it is a -- you know, it was British Petroleum. It was a British entity. And that can't be doing us much good at the moment. And that has to be repaired over time.

ANDERSON: Nangyalay Khan asks: ) "Do you think there would have been different results in the election if Blair was in for the Labour Party in 2010 and not Brown?"

CAMPBELL: I certainly think that Tony, at his best, and Tony in his prime, he would have destroyed David Cameron. I've got no doubt about that at all. But, of course...

ANDERSON: Is he past his prime, though?

CAMPBELL: Well, it's not a question of being past his prime. It's the fact that he'd done it for so long and he wasn't going to be there. I mean he said in 2005 it was his last election, so, therefore, it is one of those interesting hypotheticals, but who knows is -- is the honest answer.

ANDERSON: John asks: ) "Given the enormous contribution that you've made to rebuilding and sustaining the Labour Party, why do you think that the majority of the press in the U.K. and elsewhere continue to attack you?"

CAMPBELL: Within the media, there -- kind of symbols develop. And I just sort of became a symbol for them of the whole spin thing.

I think the other thing that gets to the media is I don't -- I -- I mean I obviously don't care. I've some -- I've got so little respect now for most British journalists and most British newspapers and quite a lot of the broadcasters, as well, I don't care what they think. And I think they find that very hard to take. And so they keep whacking me and they can keep whacking because I've got to tell you, I've grown immune. I have grown immune to it.


ANDERSON: Alastair Campbell, the original spinmeister extraordinaire.