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The pages of spin

  • Michael Crick
  • 14 Aug 07, 06:55 PM

campbell_nn203.jpgI owe an apology – of sorts – to Alastair Campbell. When his diaries came out last month, nobody had much time to read them. On the Monday of publication I managed about 200 pages (out of more than 750), and confined myself to reading about the early years of the Blair government. On Newsnight that night I expressed disappointment. There was nothing very new in the book, I said, and many of the stories sounded quite familiar, I said.

I’ve now read the remaining 550 pages, and done so rather more slowly and carefully than I did the first chunk. I want to modify my verdict. Although it’s true that there are no great bombshells, the diaries are a valuable addition to the growing history of the Blair years. They paint a fascinating, detailed picture of life at the heart of government – the tensions, bickering, and the relentless pressure. I was particularly surprised by Blair’s doubts at so many important moments, and his basic insecurity, so that he would be phoning Campbell every few minutes for reassurance. I can’t wait for the full versions to be published.

Campbell’s friendships are interesting, too. He was in regular contact with the former right-wing Conservative and fellow diarist Alan Clark, and also got on well with several other Tories - Nicholas Soames, David Davis and Michael Heseltine. But as a Manchester United fan, and biographer of Alex Ferguson, I was especially interested in Campbell’s close contacts with the United manager. Ferguson fed Campbell and Blair lots of advice in the run-up to the 1997 election, telling them that Labour was so well ahead in the polls that they should play it safe - as if they were winning a match 2-0 with only a few minutes to go. Let your opponents take all the risks, Ferguson advised, and open themselves up to giving away more goals.

Given the Labour spin doctor’s close friendship with Ferguson, I’ve always been curious as to why Campbell allowed both men to make essentially the same mistake. Ferguson told the world he would retire as United manager in 2002, but that announcement causing him nothing but grief, and he eventually changed his mind of course with only a few months to go (and is still in power at Old Trafford). Then in the autumn of 2004 Tony Blair famously announced a rough timetable for his departure as Prime Minister. Over the next three years that announcement also caused Blair huge trouble. Like Sir Alex, he deeply regretted it.

The lesson to any man of power: time your departure to come as a complete surprise.

Tuesday, 14 August, 2007

  • Newsnight
  • 14 Aug 07, 05:40 PM

From tonight's presenter, Kirsty Wark

salmond_nn203.jpgNorth of the border

We begin tonight with the First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond's plans for a referendum on independence.

In their election manifesto the nationalists promised a white paper on a referendum within 100 days of an SNP administration. But the opposition parties have ganged up on the minority administration to oppose any referendum, and without the support of a substantial grouping (and so a majority) it’s hard to see how a referendum could become a reality.

Alex Salmond has called for a "national conversation" and the White Paper encompasses not only the independence option but what's been nicknamed the "devolution max" position under which the Scottish Parliament could have a range of new powers including, for example, fiscal powers, energy policy, or broadcasting.

At the same time the three opposition parties will now jointly review the devolution settlement opening the way to the accrual of further powers.

So it is a potentially dynamic situation which poses a number of questions for the Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Will there be constructive engagement? Tonight I'll be interviewing Alex Salmond. Then, to discuss Scotland’s next step, I’ll be talking to Lord Forsyth, the Conservative former Secretary of State for Scotland, who urges the Conservatives to back the referendum in order to shoot Alex Salmond's fox for once and for all. I’ll also be speaking to Lord Steel of the Liberal Democrats - he was the first Presiding Officer of the Parliament - and the Labour MSP and former Scottish Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson.
SNP outlines independence plans

Pakistan’s anniversary

Pakistan celebrates 60 years since partition. We'll be hearing live from Islamabad and from author and former BBC correspondent Mark Tully – he has made a film for Newsnight to coincide with India's anniversary of independence tomorrow. He'll be looking at how the country has changed, whether it is as tolerant as it likes to think it is and whether the caste system is such a prominent feature of Indian society today as it was 60 years ago. He'll also be assessing how diverse a culture exists in this democracy, whether America's influence is too pervasive and if religious tolerance is actually on the wane.
Pakistan marks 60th anniversary

Lord Biffen remembered

"A great parliamentarian and respected Leader of the House of Commons." That was the Prime Minister's tribute to the former Conservative Minister John Biffen who died early today. Lord Biffen was in Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet first as Chief Secretary to the Treasury but famously fell out with her whereupon he was described as a "semi-detached" member of the Cabinet. Lord Heseltine said that description referred to his ability to see both sides of the argument and that he was a very cerebral politician with a fine mind.
Thatcher leads tributes to Biffin

Find Tony's lost discs

  • Newsnight
  • 14 Aug 07, 03:29 PM

By Steve Smith

beach_203.jpgMany of you have been getting in touch to say how much Tony “Mr Manchester” Wilson will be missed.

We were fortunate enough to record the last substantial interview with the former Factory Records boss before his untimely death. The producers of Desert Island Discs were set to invite Wilson on the programme. The music mogul, telly motormouth and inspiration for the film 24 Hour Party People would have been a great guest, but regrettably it was not to be.

Tony Wilson told us that he would have included Idiot Wind by Bob Dylan in his selection, and Lazyitis by the Happy Mondays. He wanted Atmosphere by Joy Division played at his funeral, he said. But he didn't complete the list of favourite songs while we were with him.

Newsnight Editor Peter Barron wonders what other discs Tony Wilson would have picked to complete the eight that every castaway is allowed to take to the fabled island...

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