Alastair Campbell: A modern day Thomas Cromwell?
With a new book out about winners, former Labour strategist Alastair Campbell tells Alex Bellotti why he’s never settled for second best
Gazing out across the London skyline from the heights of Alexandra Palace, Alastair Campbell has an idea. As a Union Jack flag flutters behind him, he looks away for a moment and then turns his head back towards our photographer, Polly, trying to perfect the “Wolf Hall look”.
It’s a pose he’s noticed many actors in the BBC drama employ, not least Mark Rylance as protagonist Thomas Cromwell, who was once described by David Starkey as “Alastair Campbell with an axe”.
It’s a comparison Campbell obviously welcomes. After all, his Tudor ‘counterpart’ was dismissed for centuries, to quote historian John Kenyon, as a ‘doctrinaire hack, the unscrupulous agent of a despotic master’, until recent revaluation rendered him the ‘presiding genius’ of his government, and now – thanks to Hilary Mantel – even strangely likable.
If Campbell does have one eye on the history books, he certainly gives a strong account of himself in his new bestseller, ‘Winners And How They Succeed’. A study of “hyper-achievers” such as Jose Mourinho, Anna Wintour and Richard Branson, it sees him make compelling, if sometimes obvious, hypotheses about what makes them tick, largely drawing on traits that he himself possesses.
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Winners, the book argues, are obsessive, strategic, resilient, and more than anything, they just hate to lose.
“My mum, she’s dead now, but she was classic,” Campbell remarks. “She used to say that thing about how you can only do your best, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, taking part’s really important. I just don’t buy that. Taking part is important, but if you can win you should do everything that you can to win.”
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The only other time he mentions his mother is later when he finds a stain on his suit jacket. “I still find myself thinking I can’t let mum see this,” he mutters, agitatedly scrubbing it off. I feel a bit guilty – I forgot to mention it when he was being filmed outside his Gospel Oak house by ITV an hour before.
It’s the day David Cameron announces he won’t have a one-on-one TV debate with Ed Miliband ahead of the election, so as we travel from Gospel Oak to Alexandra Palace for a talk Campbell’s doing later, our interview is punctuated by fellow hacks eager for a quote from him on the “pathetic” decision.
“When it’s all about process, Cameron loves it,” the 57-year-old tells me, as we zip around Haringey The Thick Of It-style in the back of his chauffeured Mercedes Limo. “He’ll be loving all this. He knows that not many people are going to change their vote because he’s not doing a debate – some will, but not many. So if he can avoid the debates… I see why he’s doing it, but I just think he’s wrong, I actually think he’s democratically wrong and should pay a price for it.”
Many have thrown similar accusations at Campbell in the past, you might think, but before moving onto that thorny issue, I ask why Cameron would even fear Miliband. While making no secret of the fact he voted for the other Miliband brother to lead the Labour party, Campbell repeatedly insists that “Ed is onto something” – a backhanded compliment perhaps?
“I think Ed is onto something about how politics and the economy are not working for people at the moment. Just as how he became Labour leader by in a sense representing discontinuity and real change from the Labour team that I was part of, I think he represents discontinuity now from this economic and political model now that’s not working.”
Of course Miliband’s distancing from the previous government might not have been necessary had it not been for the defining legacy of the controversial and, disastrous Iraq War embarked upon by Tony Blair, of which his trusted communications director, Campbell, played a decisive role with the so-called “dodgy dossier” of 2003 that justified going to war.
Considering the subsequent and continued hostility this has subjected Campbell to – in January the Ham & High reported an incident where he was spat on by a passer by – he’s remained remarkably thick skinned about this legacy. In his book, he calls Rupert Murdoch a ‘loser’ because despite his wealth and success, he has a bad reputation, yet seems to view his own in more subjective terms.
“I love the fact that I get paid loads of money to travel round the world advising corporations and individuals about how to keep a good reputation. What’s that about?” he says, for the first time just showing a glimmer of that notorious temper.
“I do talks on reputational management; I do advice on reputational management. And every time I do it, I thank the Daily Mail and I thank the Daily Telegraph and all these papers that have vilified me because actually that’s one of the reasons why people like me. I think people think that ,‘Ok he’s taken quite a lot of flak in his time but he’s still there and he’s still going and he still believes the same things and he still does what he does.’”
With the mess Iraq’s in now though, that flak’s unlikely to go away any time soon. Does Campbell subscribe to the view that Britain’s intervention – albeit unwittingly – opened up opportunities for the likes of ISIS?
“I do understand why people say it, but I think it’s misplaced and I’ll tell you why. I think what you want to say is that Blair and Bush and the rest of them made the decision to go to war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein for the reasons that were given. Now we’ve got this mess not just in Iraq, but in Syria, in Libya, in Yemen and parts of North Africa, and they want to say that directly caused that. It’s such an over-simplification of what happened.
“What I think everybody accepts is that after the toppling of Saddam, there was an underestimation of the extent to which these groups would move into Iraq to exploit the situation.
“But the fact is don’t forget that Afghanistan – and to some extent Iraq – they followed the world waking up to just how dangerous and serious these groups were via 9/11. That was the moment when the world really woke up.
“To be fair to Tony he’d been going on about it for ages. The idea that George Bush said, ‘Oh come on Tony, they’re like this, they’re like this’… Tony had been going on about that stuff for ages, that there was this new, really militant, really dangerous form of Islamic extremism that was a threat to us. I think that threat would have come anyway.”
There may well be some element of truth to what he says, but equally it’s this shirking of responsibility that earns Campbell such hostility. The trouble with talking to the former Mirror journalist is that while he’s very engaging, his words about his time in government always hold you at arms length.
I decide instead to ask about an interview he held with Lance Armstrong before the cyclist’s 2012 drug scandal. Despite notably falling for Armstrong’s “losing, dying, it’s the same thing” mantra at the time, Campbell now says the American is a loser because, like Murdoch, he’s now lost his reputation.
But what if he never got caught?
“That’s a really good question. I think if you’ve done something really, really bad, and you ‘get away with it’ – like he did for a long time and probably would have done if he hadn’t gone back for his final tour – I don’t know, I think you always live with that. It depends on the scale of your conscience.”
Watching Campbell’s relentless attacks on Cameron throughout the day, his genuine passion for the Labour party does shine through and unlike many in politics, he doesn’t seem to just be in it for the power. On the other hand, it also seems as though these beliefs are too frequently undermined by a blinding desire to beat the opposition at all cost – indeed to win.
Perhaps he is like Cromwell then, but ultimately there was a man for whom losing and dying eventually did become the same thing. And if the stakes are that high, you have to wonder – is it really worth playing the game?
?Winners And How They Succeed by Alastair Campbell is published by Hutchinson, RRP £20.