As his debut novel hits the shelves, ex-spin doctor Alastair Campbell tells Peter Wilson about his mental breakdown, his relationship with the Blairs—and why he has had enough of politics for one lifetime
In writing his first novel, Alastair Campbell might have been expected to beam in on the world of Labour politics and public relations that made him our best-known spin doctor and Tony Blair's closest professional confidant. Instead, he has focused on the world of mental health with All in the Mind, a tale about a London psychiatrist and his relationships with his patients and family.
Fresh from sending off the final proofs, Campbell explains that it was not such a strange choice of subject, since his own mental health problems predate his life in politics. In fact, Campbell believes the event that enabled him to become one of the most powerful unelected figures in political history was a night in 1986 when he found himself driving endlessly round a roundabout in a hire car. Realising he was out of control, he dumped the car, but was later arrested for his own safety—having been spotted making a pile of his possessions in the foyer of a large building.
The psychotic breakdown suffered by the over-promoted and alcoholic 29-year-old journalist was so severe that he was hospitalised for days and medicated for months, leading friends to believe he might now seek a calmer professional life. But Campbell reckons it was that ugly "24-carat crack-up" that prepared him for the later years of relentless pressure.
"This may sound crazy, but I am convinced that if it hadn't been for my breakdown, I couldn't have done the job I did for Tony," says Campbell, now a non-drinking, extremely fit 51-year-old. "It gave me a yardstick on pressure. Things got very stressful and hard over the years, but it never got as bad as my breakdown. It's a kind of inner strength you get if you are lucky—and I was—and you've been to the edge and somehow come back."
The closest he has come to similar despair, he says, was after the 2003 suicide of weapons scientist Dr David Kelly and the Hutton Inquiry into whether Campbell and Blair had pushed Kelly over the edge for talking to a BBC reporter about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction".
"If I am being totally honest, yes, I did feel a bit suicidal then; it was a very bad time, but it still never felt as bad as when I was cracking up," says Campbell, who left Blair later in 2003 after being cleared of any wrongdoing over Kelly's death, or in allegedly "sexing up" the government's propaganda about the WMD.
His well paid public speeches and the million-pound sale of his political diaries now afford him a relatively leisurely life, pursuing his obsession with sport and raising money for charity—and for Labour—but he has not totally shaken off his propensity for depression.
"I still have my bad days. It's just something that happens to some people. I have always suffered from depression to varying degrees but I was probably never aware of it until I had my breakdown. I am in many ways a really positive person, but I have this depressive streak that I have come to terms with. It's there and there's no denying it." The actor Stephen Fry, who has had his own mental health problems, has already described All in the Mind as "brilliant", concluding that Campbell's own ordeal has given the book unique insight and empathy. "I have rarely read a book where the agonies and insecurities of mental trauma have been so well chronicled," says Fry.
Campbell is not the sort of person you expect to open up. He doesn't strike you as vulnerable. He is distrustful and even contemptuous of most journalists and is famous as a tough, macho operator, better known for bawling out editors and reporters than discussing his own frailties. But there is a touch of evangelism in the way he discusses mental health.
"I think it's really important that people understand this happens sometimes. I was very lucky with Tony as a boss, because when he first approached me to work for him [days after Blair was elected Labour leader in 1994] he already knew I'd had a breakdown. He knew I'd had a drink problem, that I was a bit prone to flying off the handle and so forth. I said, 'You're not worried about this, are you?' and he said, 'If you're not worried then I'm not.' I said, 'What if I am?' and he said, 'I'm still not.'"
Campbell wishes everyone could have that level of support. "Most people—if they are depressive and having a really bad day and can't face going to work—they will phone up and say 'I've got a cold, I've got flu, I've done my back in.' Because you can be open about a bad back, but you can't be open about depression. We need to wise up to the fact that a lot of people have mental health problems. Cutting yourself off from what they can offer in terms of work is self-defeating."
Campbell was a canny media operator who used his extensive newspaper experience to predict how the press would react to political events, but he was also determined to seize control of the agenda by managing the flow of government actions and announcements. It meant relentless pressure and virtually living on his mobile phone—oddly, he never learned to use email while in Downing Street. He continued to suffer from clinical depression and his short temper fuelled rows with the press, especially the BBC.
Campbell joked in his diaries about his own misanthropy by recording that Peter Mandelson once asked him: "Do you like anyone?" Campbell responded that he liked his three children "and Fiona [Millar, his partner] when she's not disagreeing with me. The rest can fuck off."
He came to symbolise what many saw as Labour's obsession with aggressive manipulation of the press, but he is unrepentant, blaming Britain's media and its "putrid culture", which he says trivialises politics and cheapens public life.
"One of the best things in my life at the moment is having very little to do with the media. I haven't listened to the Today programme since I left, not once. I don't feel remotely less informed. I don't read newspapers other than for sport. I'm not evangelical about it—if there's a paper there, I will read it, and there are some journalists worth reading. But very few. There is just a lack of basic honesty and balance, and the trivialisation of politics is mind-blowing.
"It's not just the newspapers, it's television and radio every bit as much. I'm talking about the broadcasters who have an agenda which is not pro-Labour or anti-Labour, it's anti-politics, politics as soap opera. It is 'there is nothing really serious going on so I will tell you all the trivia and pretend it's important'. That is the stuff I can't stand." Yet one of his great scoops as a reporter for the Daily Mirror was the revelation that Tory prime minister John Major supposedly tucked his shirt into his underpants. It generated enormous publicity and enraged Major.
"Yeah, I did write that," Campbell concedes with something of a naughty grin, "but I worked for a red-top newspaper and was avowedly pro-Labour. I saw my job as trying to help the Labour Party get elected."
Doesn't that make him the wrong person to criticise the press for having its own prejudices? "Not really. What I can't stand is the dishonesty of these people who pretend that they are objective, independent, impartial coverers of politics."
Campbell is equally unrepentant about the Blair government's claim that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD. "You have to acknowledge that no WMD have been found—fact—but I may be the last to go to the grave absolutely convinced that he did have them. There is no way that the intelligence of all the agencies around the world—it wasn't just the British and Americans—was all wrong."
But surely the whole point is that intelligence experts did express doubts and qualifications on the issue but those caveats were dropped by people like Blair and Campbell as they made the case for war?
"Well, they were saying sufficient for Tony to be more concerned, not less, put it that way. Post-9/11, that flow of intelligence across his desk was saying the threat was getting worse, not better. He believed passionately what he was presenting to parliament at the time."
One person who certainly was not happy with Campbell's aggressive style was Cherie Blair, who described him in her recent memoir as an egotistical, "charming thug", going so far as to say that he "didn't like to think that women had equal capacity". Campbell shrugs off the attack. "I don't believe I am a misogynist at all, but if people want to say it, I don't give a toss. The truth is, I actually prefer working with women to men."
Fiona Millar worked as an adviser for Cherie before being fired in 2003 and Campbell says: "It is no secret that when we left, one of the reasons was that Fiona and Cherie didn't get on terribly well. But as far as I was concerned, the guy I was working for was Tony. He is somebody I still speak to a lot and see; but I would be lying if I said I saw Cherie socially terribly often."
He dismisses suggestions that he might return to full-time work at Downing Street, despite doing some work with the current prime minister. "Gordon knows I don't want to go back and do the job that I did. I treasure the freedom I have now and don't feel the need for a job at all."
Then the one-time mover and shaker pauses for thought. "I suppose the one thing I lack is the driving sense of purpose that I always had before. The closest I got was writing the novel, but the only thing that has given me a real sense of mission since leaving Downing Street was going back [as a consultant] for the 2005 campaign." Somehow that statement just makes it easier to imagine him picking up his mobile and returning to the fray.