The furor that greeted Alastair Campbell's resignation Friday gave some measure of the power and presence of Tony Blair's communications chief. His departure was not unexpected: there were strong rumors weeks ago that he would be leaving sometime this summer, and once Blair and spy chief John Scarlett had backed his claim that he had not "sexed up" the Iraq dossier, there was no reason for him to stay longer. Last week he offered no set departure date and his announced successor, a lively and at times suitably abrasive former Labour press aide named David Hill, was a safe, expected choice. But even though there was little new here, Britain's political world was stunned just the same. It was difficult to conceive of Blair without Campbell, who was often called the real deputy prime minister, the second most powerful political figure in Britain. He was admired for his wit and intelligence and feared for his relentless bullying (and once or twice, even actual beating) of reporters; Bill Clinton once offered Blair an even swap, Campbell in return for Clinton's press secretary, Mike McCurry. His real value to the Prime Minister was behind the scenes: his voice is Blair's voice. Campbell was the first press secretary to regularly join cabinet meetings; he is rumored to have had a strong hand in seeing off several cabinet ministers, including Peter Mandelson, also famed as a master of New Labour spin. Campbell's role as eminence grise was spotlit this month in the Hutton Inquiry, which revealed just how closely Campbell had worked with Scarlett on the Iraq dossier, chairing meetings and holding one-on-one talks.
It was an unusually sensitive job for a communications chief, but then there is nothing ordinary about the career of Campbell, the soccer-loving, bagpipe-playing son of a Scottish veterinarian. He came to politics after Cambridge, a spot of writing soft-porn articles (in response to a bet), and more than a decade in journalism. As political editor of the pro-Labour Daily Mirror, he took up the cause of Neil Kinnock, the party's leader at the time, helping him with speeches and strategy and promoting him in his columns. When Campbell joined Blair, in 1994, he put that experience to use, becoming one of the architects of Blair's New Labour project.
It all went well for Campbell in the first years. Crucially, he brought the tabloid press onto Blair's side, set up a formidable government press machine and managed his master's sincere image with skill and ferocity. Political fiascos left Blair unsullied in those days. Meanwhile, Campbell's influence went deep into Downing Street, with his partner Fiona Millar working as an adviser to Blair's wife, Cherie. (Millar, too, will now be leaving Downing Street.) Toward the end of Blair's first term, however, Campbell's reputation for news manipulation was beginning to hurt both his master and himself, and when Campbell himself became a news story, he retired to direct operations from behind the scenes. But the image of spin refused to go away, and was confirmed by the Hutton Inquiry. No doubt Blair will miss his closest confidant. With Hill on board, a man who has no history of spin but also no known facility for channeling Blair's thoughts and voice, the Prime Minister is both all alone and in position for one last fresh start.