Published on Saturday, August 30, 2003 by Reuters
Blair's Top Aide Quits Amid Iraq Row
by Lyndsay Griffiths and Dominic Evans
LONDON—Tony Blair's top aide and pugnacious spokesperson Alastair Campbell announced his resignation yesterday as the British prime minister battles the worst credibility crisis of his six-year rule.
Few had expected the 46-year-old aide to quit while he and his boss face big questions still hanging over their role in nudging the nation to join Washington in a war in Iraq few Britons backed. But analysts said Campbell's exit offered the prime minister an opportunity to try to restore public trust and shed a damaging reputation for media obsession.
Campbell, Blair's chief "spin doctor" and an architect of the election landslide that swept the Labour Party to power after 18 years in the wilderness, was so influential that he was dubbed the "real deputy prime minister." He was also the first Downing Street spokesperson to sit in on cabinet meetings.
Television satires on the Campbell-Blair relationship carried sketches showing the abrasive former tabloid journalist running the show in Downing Street.
"This idea that the prime minister couldn't cope without me, or without anyone else, is an absolute nonsense. The prime minister is somebody of immense ability," Campbell said in a statement.
His resignation follows the departure two years ago of another top Blair adviser, Anji Hunter, and a series of close cabinet allies including Peter Mandelson and Alan Milburn.
Another "Blairite" minister, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, is widely expected to end up a victim of the inquiry into the government's handling of weapons expert David Kelly, source of a BBC report that Blair "sexed up" the threat posed by Iraq.
"It leaves the prime minister with a great gap in what had been a very effective praetorian guard around him," former junior Defense minister Peter Kilfoyle said. "Now he has lost the man who did so much to protect and project him."
But analysts said Blair, hardened by six years in power, is better placed to survive without Campbell than during his early days in office.
"Four or five years ago, when Blair was still new, it would have been fatal," pollster Peter Kellner said. "But he has climbed the learning curve."
Campbell's ability to charm or bully a hostile British media into sympathetic coverage was central to Labour's success, but the focus on media presentation rapidly became a liability.
"The public had turned against spin. They don't think Blair can be trusted," Kellner said. "Campbell's departure gives the opportunity both symbolically and realistically to change tack."
But the Stop the War group said in a statement yesterday: "The end of his career as Downing Street's spinner-in-chief should not, however, mask the culpability of Tony Blair, who sold the war to the British people on the basis of lies.
Opposition Conservatives, enjoying a rare lead over Labour in opinion polls, crowed over the resignation of a man they regularly vilified. A 1998 survey showed 74 per cent of voters trusted Blair. That has now shrunk to 27 per cent.
Observers say Blair's opponents will miss their favorite whipping boy. "I'm not sure if this is a good thing for the (Conservatives)," said Sheila Gunn, an aide to former Conservative prime minister John Major. "Mention the word Alastair and MPs foam at the mouth."
Blair's office named his successor as David Hill, a public relations expert and former Labour Party press officer.
Campbell said yesterday that his decision to quit for family reasons was made long before the Iraq controversy erupted. "I wanted to go a year ago and the prime minister asked me to stay on because the Iraq issue was developing in a particularly alarming way and we agreed back in April that I would definitely go this summer.''
Copyright 2003 Reuters Limited