The Blair Years is the most compelling and revealing account of contemporary politics you will ever read. Taken from Alastair Campbell’s daily diaries, it charts the rise of New Labour and the tumultuous years of Tony Blair’s leadership, providing the first important record of a remarkable decade in our national life.
Here are the defining events of our time, from Labour’s new dawn to the war on terror, from the death of Diana to negotiations for peace in Northern Ireland, from Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, through to the Hutton Inquiry of 2003, the year Campbell resigned his position at No 10. But above all here is Tony Blair up close and personal, taking the decisions that affected the lives of millions, under relentless and often hostile pressure.
Often described as the second most powerful figure in Britain, Alastair Campbell is no stranger to controversy. Feared and admired in equal measure, hated by some, he was pivotal to the founding of New Labour and the sensational election victory of 1997. As Blair’s press secretary, strategist and trusted confidant, Campbell spent more waking hours alongside the Prime Minister than anyone. His diaries – at times brutally frank, often funny, always compelling – take the reader right to the heart of government.
The Blair Years is a story of politics in the raw, of progress and setback, of reputations made and destroyed, under the relentless scrutiny of a 24-hour media. Unflinchingly told, it covers the crises and scandals, the rows and resignations, the ups and downs of Britain’s hothouse politics. But amid the big events are insights and observations that make this a remarkably human portrayal of some of the most powerful people in the world.
There has never been so riveting a book about life at the very top, nor a more human book about politics, told by a man who saw it all.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Alastair Campbell was born in Keighley, Yorkshire in 1957, the son of a vet. After graduating from Cambridge University in modern languages, his first chosen career was journalism, principally with the Mirror Group. When Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party, he asked Campbell to be his press secretary. He worked for Blair - first in that capacity, then as official spokesman and director of communications and strategy - from 1994 to 2003, since when he has been engaged mainly in writing, public speaking and working for Leukaemia Research, where he is chairman of fundraising. He has continued to act as an advisor to Mr Blair and the Labour Party, including during the 2005 election campaign. He lives in North London with his partner of 25 years, Fiona Millar. They have three children Rory, 19, Calum, 17 and Grace, 12. His interests include running, triathlon, bagpipes and Burnley Football Club.
From the Hardcover edition.
The following are excerpts from Alastair Campbell's The Blair Years. Mr. Campbell's comments on the entries are in bold.
As a journalist, I had often been critical of Princess Diana. The moment I met her, former negative thoughts were banished.
Thursday, May 4, 1995
Local elections. Terry picked me up to go to collect TB/CB to go to Walworth Rd for the results coming in. They were at a dinner in Hyde Park Gardens that had been organised for them to meet Princess Diana. I rang the bell and said could you tell Mr Blair his car is here. I went back to the car and the next thing TB is tapping at the car window and he says: 'Someone wants to meet you.' I get out and she's walking towards me, and she says: 'There he is, can I come over and say hello,' and then she's standing there, absolutely, spellbindingly, drop-dead gorgeous, in a way that the millions of photos didn't quite get it. She said hello, held out her hand and said she was really pleased to meet me, so I mumbled something back about me being more pleased and how I didn't expect when I left the house tonight that I'd end up standing in the middle of the road talking to her. 'It would make a very funny picture if there were any paparazzi in those trees,' she said. TB was standing back and Cherie was looking impatient and I was just enjoying flirting with her.
I asked if he had behaved well and she said yes, very well. I said in that case I think you should come with us to Walworth Road and create an almighty sensation.
'I just might,' she said.
In the introduction to the book I cite TB's optimism and resilience as two of his greatest qualities. Here, in his second week as Prime Minister, the optimism is on display after a weekend spent reflecting on Northern Ireland. The resilience would follow as, over the course of his Premiership, he secured progress towards peace.
Monday, May 12, 1997
TB said he reckoned he could see a way of sorting the Northern Ireland problem. I loved the way he said it, like nobody had thought of it before. I said what makes you think you can do it when nobody else could?
Death of Diana
The events following the death of Diana are recorded in some detail in the book. Here is a short extract which records how I heard the news, and how TB initially reacted.
Saturday, August 30, 1997
I got to bed, and at around two I was paged by media monitoring: 'Car crash in Paris. Dodi killed. Di hurt. This is not a joke.' Then TB came on. He had been called by Number 10 and told the same thing. He was really shocked. He said she was in a coma and the chances are she'd die. I don't think I'd ever heard him like this. He was full of pauses, then gabbling a little, but equally clear what we had to do. We started to prepare a statement. We talked through the things we would have to do tomorrow, if she died. By now the phones were starting from the press, and I didn't sleep. Then about an hour later Nick, the duty clerk, called and said simply 'She's dead. The Prime Minister is being told now.' I went through on the call. Angus Lapsley was duty private secretary and was taking him through what we knew. But it was hard to get beyond the single fact of her death. 'I can't believe this. I just can't believe it,' said TB. 'You just can't take it in, can you?' And yet, as ever with TB, he was straight onto the ramifications.
Historic day with Sinn Fein
There were many important milestones on the road to the Good Friday Agreement, which was perhaps the greatest high of my entire time with TB, elections included. This extract relates to one such milestone, the first visit to Downing Street by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, two men crucial to the peace process.
Thursday, December 11, 1997
Gerry Adams and his team arrived 15 minutes early, and he did a little number in the street, where the media numbers were huge. This was a big moment, potentially historic in the progress it could lead to. They came inside and we kept them waiting while we went over what TB was due to say. Mo Mowlam and Paul Murphy were both there and Mo was pretty fed up, feeling she was getting shit from all sides. They were hovering around the lifts and were summoned down to the Cabinet room. We had agreed TB should be positive but firm. He actually came over as friendly, welcoming them individually as they came in. I shook McGuinness by the hand, who as he sat down said, fairly loudly, 'So this is the room where all the damage was done.' It was a classic moment where the different histories played out. Everyone on our side thought he was referring to the mortar attack on Major, and we were shocked. Yet it became obvious from their surprise at our shock that he was referring to policymaking down the years, and Britain's involvement in Ireland. 'No, no, I meant 1921,' he said. I found McGuinness more impressive than Adams, who did the big statesman bit, and talked in grand historical sweeps, but McGuinness just made a point and battered it, and forced you to take it on board. Of the women, I could not work out whether they really mattered, or whether they just took them round with them to look a bit less hard. They were tough as boots all three of them. TB was good in the use of language and captured well the sense of history and occasion. He said we faced a choice of history — violence and despair, or peace and progress. We were all taking risks, but they are risks worth taking. He said to Adams he wanted to be able to look him in the eye, hear him say he was committed to peaceful means, and he wanted to believe him. I was eyeing their reaction to TB the whole time, and both Adams and McG regularly let a little smile cross their lips. Martin Ferris [Sinn Fein negotiator] was the one who just stared. Mo got pissed off, volubly, when they said she wasn't doing enough. TB was maybe not as firm as we had planned, but he did ask — which I decided not to brief, and knew they wouldn't — whether they would be able to sign up to a settlement that did not explicitly commit to a united Ireland. Adams was OK, but McGuinness was not. Adams said the prize of a lasting peace justifies the risks. Lloyd George, Balfour, Gladstone, Cromwell, they all thought they had answers of sorts. We want our answers to be the endgame. A cobbled-together agreement will not stand the test of time. He pushed hard on prisoners being released, and the aim of total demilitarisation, and TB just listened. TB said he would not be a persuader for a united Ireland. The principle of consent was central to the process. Adams said if TB could not be a persuader, he could be a facilitator. He said we would be dead in 40 years, but in the meantime this was the biggest test of TB's time in office, how he deals with the displaced citizens in a divided territory.
September 11 was meant to be another fairly routine day. It came to be a defining moment in the Blair years and would ensure foreign policy dominated his second term. As with Diana's death, once the initial shock subsided, he was straight onto the ramifications.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001
I woke up to the usual blah on the radio about TB and the TUC speech, all the old BBC clichés about us and the unions, the only new thing GMB ads asking if you trust TB not to privatise the NHS. Peter H and I went up to the flat. TB had done a good section on public-private, an effective hit back at the Edmonds line. With the economy, public services, Europe/euro and a bit on asylum, we had a proper speech. We sharpened it and honed it a bit. He was furious at the GMB ads, said he intended to give Edmonds a real hammering. We finished it on the train to Brighton, were met and driven to the hotel.
We were there, up at the top of the hotel putting the finishing touches to the speech, when the attacks on the New York Twin Towers began. Godric was watching in the little room where the Garden Room girl had set up, came up to the top of the little staircase leading to the bit where TB and I were working, and signalled for me to go down. It was all a bit chaotic, with the TV people going into their usual breathless breaking-news mode, but it was clearly something way out of the ordinary. I went upstairs, turned on the TV and said to TB he ought to watch it. It was now even clearer than just a few moments ago just how massive an event this was. It was also one that was going to have pretty immediate implications for us too. We didn't watch the TV that long, but long enough for TB to reach the judgement about just how massive an event this was in its impact and implications. It's possible we were talking about thousands dead. We would also have to make immediate judgements about buildings and institutions to protect here. TB was straight onto the diplomatic side as well, said that we had to help the US, that they could not go it all on their own, that they felt beleaguered and that this would be tantamount to a military attack in their minds. We had to decide whether we should cancel the speech. There was always a moment in these terrorist outrages where governments said we must not let the terrorists change what we do, but it was meaningless. Of course they changed what we did. At first, we felt it best to go ahead with the speech but by the time we were leaving for the venue, the Towers were actually collapsing. The scale of the horror and the damage was increasing all the time and it was perfectly obvious he couldn't do the speech. We went over to the conference centre, where TB broke the news to John Monks [TUC general secretary] and Brendan Barber that he intended to go on, say a few words, but then we would have to head back to London. We would issue the text but he would not deliver the speech. Monks said to me that it's on days like this that you realise just how big his job is. TB's mind was whirring with it. His brief statement to the TUC went down well, far better than his speech would have done. We walked back to the hotel, both of us conscious there seemed to be a lot more security around. We arranged a series of conference calls through Jonathan with Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon, David Blunkett. We asked Richard Wilson to fix a Cobra meeting as soon as we got back.
We set off for Brighton station. He said the consequences of this were enormous. On the train he was subdued, though we did raise a smile when someone said it was the first and last time he would get a standing ovation from the TUC. Robert Hill was listening to the radio on his earpiece and filling us in every now and then. TB asked for a pad and started to write down some of the issues we would have to address when we got back. He said the big fear was terrorists capable of this getting in league with rogue states that would help them. He'd been going on about bin Laden for a while because there had been so much intelligence about him and al-Qaeda. He wanted to commission proper reports on OBL and all the other terror groups. He made a note of the need to reach out to the British Muslim community, who would fear a backlash if this was bin Laden. Everyone seemed convinced it couldn't be anyone else.
Crucial talks with Bush
The Blair-Clinton relationship was easy for people to understand, his close relationship with President Bush less so. TB was determined to get on with him, and believed maximum public support, particularly post September 11, led to increased private influence, including on the efforts to resolve Iraq through the UN.
Saturday, September 7, 2002
When TB came back in, GWB said he'd decided to go to the UN and put down a new UNSCR, challenge the UN to deal with the problems for its own sake. He could not stand by. He would say OK, what will you do? Earlier, not too convincingly, Karen [Hughes, GWB's communications adviser] had claimed GWB was always going to go down the UN route. Cheney looked very sour throughout, and after dinner, when TB and Bush walked alone to the chopper, Bush was open with him that Cheney was in a different position. Earlier, when we had said that the international community was pressing for some direction but that in the US there would be people saying 'Why are you going to the UN, why aren't you doing it now?' Cheney smiled across the table, making it pretty clear that was where he was. The mood was good. As we left, Bush joked to me 'I suppose you can tell the story of how Tony flew in and pulled the crazed unilateralist back from the brink.' He was very clear on the threat, and the need of the UN to deal with it. He said he would get something on the Middle East. 'That's a promise.' He was, as Sally Morgan [director of political and government relations] said, far more impressive close up.
Robin Cook's resignation and Commons debate over Iraq
The day before the defining Commons vote on Iraq, Robin Cook resigned, adding to a sense of crisis and a Prime Minister's future on the line as he sought to persuade Parliament to support military action.
Monday, March 17, 2003
TB started Cabinet, introduced Goldsmith, then Clare came in and asked Sally where Robin was. 'He's gone,' said Sal. 'Oh my God.' TB's only reference to Robin was to say that he had resigned. Peter Goldsmith went through the answer on legal authority to use force. One by one, a succession of colleagues expressed support for TB, then Clare said she owed them 'a short statement', that she intended to reflect overnight. She said publication of the Roadmap was significant but we shouldn't kid ourselves that it means it is going to happen. She said she admired the effort and energy that had gone into getting a second resolution but there had been errors of presentation. 'I'm going to have my little agonising overnight. I owe it to you.' JP, John Reid and one or two others looked physically sick. JR spoke next, said never underestimate the instincts for unity and understand that we will be judged by the Iraq that replaces Saddam's Iraq, and by the Middle East. Derry said he felt we would have got a second resolution if the French hadn't been determined to scupper it, and said we had made so much effort to get a second resolution that it had led to people thinking we actually needed one. Paul Murphy was just back from America and said what an amazing feeling there was towards us there. 'It's not quite the same here,' said TB.
Tuesday, March 18, 2003
Debate day dominant. GWB's statement overnight had come out fine. They had taken in all our changes, the ultimatum was calm and strong, the tone towards Iraqi people compassionate, the commitment to the Middle East peace process was in there strong, and all the bellicose stuff either taken out or conditional. So to be fair, they had delivered big-time for us. The Robin resignation speech, and the standing ovation in parts of the House, was still getting a lot of play but I sensed that was the high point of the rebellion. TB was on the phone to Blunkett who was warning him that John Denham would resign. Also Philip Hunt [Lords minister] went on the radio to resign. That seemed to be about it at the moment. TB was in a pretty calm mood. He felt we were winning some people over on the arguments, but we had a problem in that there were a lot of our MPs who had promised their local parties that they wouldn't support without a second resolution. This was the unintended effect of the point Derry made yesterday, that we fought so hard to get one that people assumed we needed one before action. Clare was making a complete fool of herself. Hague was on to it, had an absolutely brilliant line in the debate, how TB had 'taken his revenge and kept her'. TB's speech in the House was one of his best. Very serious, full of real argument, confronting the points of diffic...
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