A Blair Insider Tells All

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Tom Stoddart / Getty for TIME

Alastair Campbell photographed at his London home

As British Prime Minister Tony Blair's director of communications and strategy, Alastair Campbell was, for almost ten years, his most trusted adviser and confidant. One of the principal architects of New Labour, the reinvention of the ossified party of the working classes as a modern, centrist party with broad appeal, press chief Campbell was one of the biggest beasts to stalk the corridors of Westminster. His influence was immense, shaping and communicating Blair's efforts to overhaul the country-in attitude, as well as in its economy and public services-much as they had overhauled their party. An eyewitness to crucial decisions in foreign policy and a catalyst in others, Campbell treated world leaders with the bruising directness he meted out to his own colleagues.

Now, as rival commentators battle to define the legacy of Blair's more than a decade in power (he left office on June 27), Campbell has joined the argument with characteristic force. Not for him the equivocation of a modern history or the introspection of an autobiography: on Monday, July 9, with a resounding thud, Campbell lobs The Blair Years, his voluminous personal diaries, into the middle of the debate.

The Labour leader never kept a diary, unintentionally casting Campbell as his acerbic Boswell. Campbell's journals, edited from over two million words to a thick tome of 350,000, reveal their serial encounters with Presidents and Premiers, royals and rock stars, lawmen and faith leaders, press barons and members of the public. It's to that last category, "people outside the Westminster bubble," he tells TIME, that the author is appealing, over the heads of a media both he and his former boss have come to regard as irredeemably hostile.

This is the message Campbell says he hopes his readers will take away with them: "During that period an awful lot happened, and some of it was unexpected, and some of it you were paddling away madly under the water and some of it you were serene and strategic and doing what you set out to do, but actually-this was a period of history when a huge amount got done."

In a rare pre-publication interview, Campbell previewed to TIME some of the biggest revelations in the book, which is published tomorrow in the U.K. by Hutchinson and, in two weeks, by Knopf in the U.S. Like a kind of Zelig, only less self-effacing, Campbell was present at key events of the decade. Royal biographers have mined for new material on Princess Diana for years. Campbell's diaries reveal a trove of meetings she held with Blair when he was opposition leader, and describe the interaction of Buckingham Palace and the Labour Party in the days after her death. Depicted in the Oscar-winning movie, The Queen, as a boorish bully who radiates contempt for the Palace, the author of the diaries instead betrays a respect for its residents. It's reciprocated. A senior official at Buckingham Palace told TIME "Alastair was wonderful that week."

The diaries contain a firsthand account of Blair's response to the terror attacks of 9/11 and a detailed narrative of the negotiations leading to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the foundation of this year's historic settlement in Northern Ireland that saw old enemies enter into government together. There's even a fair bit of Labour's dirty washing: its internal struggles as it moved towards the center, and a leader, glimpsed here behind the scenes, often impressive but sometimes fretful and indecisive.

Blair got on famously well with President Bill Clinton, but the diaries also chart battles over Kosovo when Britain chafed at U.S. reluctance to commit ground forces to the conflict. "There were times that Tony and Alastair forgot the relative size and importance of the two countries," says a former U.S. official. "It was all well and good for Britain to offer up ground troops, but that was only going to happen if America was going to do so, too." During one angry call to Blair, Clinton accused Campbell of briefing against him. The row blew over and Campbell remains a friend and fan of the former President, remarking only half-jokingly that Clinton emerges from the book as "a Godlike figure."

Blair was also able to forge a bond with Clinton's successor. More surprisingly, the chippy Campbell found common ground with President Bush: a passion for running, and perhaps also the wordless empathy of the man's man, fuelled on testosterone. Both were once heavy drinkers, both now abjure the bottle. Campbell regularly enters competitive races to raise money for leukemia research (his best friend and his best friend's daughter died of the disease). One check he keeps as a souvenir came from Bush. The two men were sitting in a room in Northern Ireland between set-piece public occasions when the President spotted a newspaper article Campbell had written about his next marathon. "He says, 'Should I give you a check?' and I say, 'Yeah, that would be great,' and he opens the door and shouts out, 'Get my checkbook!' I subsequently discovered this created absolute mayhem," says Campbell. "Everyone was wondering what the hell was going on. Were we playing poker in there?"

In the end, though, it will be Campbell's relationship with Blair that will long fascinate. Which man was master, which servant? Observers sometimes found it hard to tell. The diaries reveal their rows as well as their intense friendship. As his press chief, Campbell diverted bolts of anger away from a frequently unscathed Blair, but ended up smelling increasingly of sulphur himself. His bitter dispute with the BBC after its correspondent Andrew Gilligan said in 2003 that Campbell had "sexed up" a government dossier about Saddam Hussein's weapons capability claimed scalps at the broadcaster, Gilligan's and the BBC's top two bosses. The government scientist David Kelly, unmasked as Gilligan's source, took his own life in June. When a judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Kelly's death vindicated Campbell, a wave of critical media coverage talked of a whitewash.

That's an accusation Campbell anticipates may be levelled at his diaries, despite their revelations and rich detail. If Blair's legacy is still up for grabs, his former press chief seems permanently lumbered with his: not merely a spin doctor but the Surgeon General of Spin.