“Have one of these,” says Alastair Campbell picking up a macaroon off a silver plate in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel. “Otherwise I’ll eat them. I go running every day and I’m fifteen stone. Could you imagine what I’d be like if I didn’t?”
At about 6’ 2” (maybe more) the answer to that is probably more imposing than he already is. The 53-year-old former Labour Party spin-doctor was over in Ireland last Friday to attend the Trim Swift Festival in Meath, where he was the guest of honour.
Campbell has spent most of the day promoting his latest book “The Alastair Campbell Diaries Part 1 Prelude to Power” but remarkably he looks relaxed and chipper. And is a far cry from the man who dragged himself away from Tony Blair’s office under a cloud of controversy some seven years ago.
“I don’t think I stayed too long,” he says. “I mean I was trying to leave for quite a long time and the Iraq thing, the BBC report, the Hutton inquiry kept me in there longer than I would have done. Yeah maybe. I mean it was only six years.”
Although he loved the job Campbell admits that it was often a strain. Even in the early years, which this latest publication deals with, family life and the relationship with his long-term partner Fiona Millar – with whom he has three children- suffered. And by end of his stint in Downing Street the pressure had got too much.
“ We couldn’t get away from it. Particularly when Fiona started working for Cherie (Blair). We were married to our jobs. The kids were always fine about me being away and stuff because they knew that when I was there all I cared about was them. What they couldn’t stand was when we were arguing about work which we did a lot. But we got through it.”
The final straw for Fiona was the war in Iraq but Campbell is more accepting of the necessity to oust Saddam Hussein and rejects the idea that Britain and Blair were hoodwinked into a war by the Americans.
“The thing about Tony was he thought Britain should be doing this,” he says. “Not just because the Americans were. When you get to volume 4 there’s a line where he says to Jack Straw ‘Jack this is worse than you think I believe in this.’”
For all that the war in Iraq might divide opinion there can be no begrudging the Blair government’s part in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Central to the success of the peace process was of course Mo Mowlan who Campbell had the dubious pleasure of seeing naked in the bath at the British embassy in Dublin, a scene he describes with affectionate humour in his diaries. Not that all the entries are glowing.
“Yeah that was quite a sight,” says Campbell with a smile. “She had a lot of strengths and she did a lot of things. But Mo came to confuse poll ratings and popularity with ‘that means I must be the best’. I think she got frustrated when she was in Northern Ireland because when it came to the really big stuff Tony and Bertie tended to do it and there’s no doubt that while her relationship with McGuinness and Adams was good at times her relations with the Unionists were bad and Tony had to step in for that.”
Campbell says that although she was upset at being replaced she was “pretty grown up about it”.
Her successor in Northern Ireland Peter Mandelson, is someone who Campbell admires greatly but he admits “we’ve had our moments”. One of those moments, described in the diaries, resulted in fisty cuffs.
“There was probably something else going on. You know yourself,” chuckles Campbell. “Relationships, the smallest things can make you tip. And, particularly with the speeches, things are very stressful. That day we’re trying to get one ready and he comes in and starts talking about what Tony should wear and I was just…”
“He’s very able,” he says. “The same way Gordon could be impossible. Peter could be difficult but he was brilliant.”
Most recently it was a more public argument on live television with Adam Boulton that got him back in the news and it has made him somewhat of a star on YouTube with something in the region of 800,000 views so far.
“I’ve only seen it a couple of times myself, it’s weird, isn’t?” says Campbell, surprised at the level of interest. “Right at the start you can see him sort of looking away. We sort of had a warm up beforehand. I asked him was he going to go into one of his pompous modes.”
Campbell is a regular visitor to Ireland and says that although he doesn’t “know enough about the different policy issues” he does keep an eye on things here. So what does he think of Labour’s chances at the next election?
“I saw that last poll,” he says referring to the recent Irish Times poll in which Labour were the most popular party in the country with Eamon Gilmore as the most popular leader. “Irish people in my experience are more interested in politics than in Britain. And what you need to do is keep setting out the same message again and again. That’s something that comes across in the book I think. Just when you are sick to death of saying something, when there’s the outside possibility you are reaching the outside rim of the public consciousness. You’ve got to be vocal, particularly in opposition. I am amazed at how the tough stuff seems to have been accepted”
But of course were they to be successful it would (surely?) not be the first left wing government in Ireland this century what with Bertie Ahern’s self proclaimed socialism of a few years back.
“Oh,” says Campbell a little bit baffled when asked if he thought Bertie Ahern was a socialist. He thinks about it for a while. “Put it this way had he been a Brit he’d be Labour to his core. I’m sure of that.”
But as to whether that makes him a socialist or not is left for another day.