ID: You've just published the first volume of your diaries, but about a quarter of this book has already appeared, hasn't it?
AC: No, 75 per cent is new. I've always kept a diary. I started when I was a kid when my dad was in hospital and I used to write him daily digests. As Tony [Blair] was preparing to leave, I was getting so inundated with ideas I just thought sod it - I'll give my own version based on the diaries but it would be just be a single volume of extracts. Obviously a lot of focus was on the fact that I took out stuff that people thought might be damaging to Gordon [Brown]. Actually what I was trying to do was a book about Tony. The Blair Years was very much the key episodes for him really, and Prelude to Power just follows on from it.
How difficult do you find the judgement about leaving stuff in that you know is quite hurtful to someone?
In The Blair Years I veered towards leaving out. This time I probably veered towards leaving in, partly because we're talking about a relatively long time ago. Also, for every single person who is a big player within New Labour, it's not as if we're not used to people saying part-true, critical things. Now the difference is that it's us saying it. I sometimes left things out if they were in the mouth of others and I felt it was unfair to them. But there's nothing there I've taken out except for taste, law or libel because you think it's too harsh or it's something that is so rooted in that moment that it's unfair on the person saying it or about the person about whom it's said.
Who do you think will feel most uncomfortable reading it?
I don't know. When The Blair Years came out, [Blair's Chief of Staff] Jonathan Powell came up with this really great line. He said: "No one can say this is a self-serving memoir because you come across as a complete lunatic." All of us at points will think: "Ooh, maybe I would have rather not have seen that in print."
Wasn't Gordon Brown's problem the fact that there was no plan?
You just kept waiting for this vision and it never really came. He had 13 years to decide what to do!He needed the continuity. The change bit was more difficult because Tony and Gordon were politically not that far apart. Tony may have been more on the outer edges of modernisation and the public services end. Going back to where this book starts, the differences - in so far as they existed - were deciding who's going to do the job and whether they can stand against each other. So it was the loss of the sense of continuity that gave him that problem you defined. People were saying: "Hold on a minute, where is all this new stuff?" But there was a plan.
If Tony Blair had been leader at this election would he still be in Downing Street now?
It's an interesting hypothetical. Tony used to say that no one in a top job should stay more than eight years. I don't know if that's right or wrong. I certainly think that Tony, if he had been able to get through and fight this election, was the sort of opponent David Cameron would have found very, very difficult.
Did he ever contemplate actually carrying on that long?
No, I don't think so. He was always of the view that eight years was about as long as you could go. And he went 10 years. Who knows whether the party would have allowed it?
Why did you go back into Downing Street after it nearly ate you up the first time around?
John Harris in The Guardian said it was perfectly obvious to him Gordon Brown was the source of my depression. And I said: "Oh no, I used to get depression before Gordon." But people like [Harris] were saying how can you put up with all this angst and grief he's causing you and then go back and help him in 2010. Part of it is tribalism.
And that's what people who aren't involved in politics never get.That's right. They just wonder how you put up with it. But part of it is also a residual understanding of his strengths. I found at every stage, there were points at which I said to Tony: "This is just terrible. I can't go on like this."
Did you ever come close to snapping?
There are points at which you think, there is another way here. Tony was the boss and, for the bulk of the time, was of the view that the problems were outweighed by the strengths and the brilliance that Gordon brought. He had a point. And so before the 2005 election, when there were lots of people saying that Gordon should be replaced, kicked off, I was never 100 per cent of that view because you just don't know what's going to happen. You don't know that we might've ended up in a worst position. You just don't know.
But if Blair knew Brown was going to succeed him, it would have been good for him to be foreign secretary for a few years, rather than just be chancellor.
Gordon would have found it very hard to be anything other than chancellor. Not that he couldn't have done those jobs. But you know how they would have been perceived. I haven't talked to Gordon about this, but would it have been sensible to have some sort of competition, some sort of leadership election? There is a view that the party would have found it very difficult for Gordon not to have been Tony's successor.
But Gordon Brown appeared to think that the leadership was an entitlement, his by right. That was the root of the reason why he ultimately failed.
Because a normal politician would have had to fight for it and he just didn't. He fought for it in the sense that there was a continual undermining of Blair but that was it.
No, I can see that and it would have been better had there been a fairly broad field. When you look now and see David and Ed Miliband in competition, you do ask yourselves whether it might have been better back then. John Prescott said so at the time.
Prescott comes out of your diaries as a bit of a hero.
Tony had a lot of doubts about John from the start. But at the end he would say he had a great deputy leader. Really great.
He was sort of a Heineken deputy leader. He could reach parts that Blair couldn't.
[Laughs] But he was also somebody whose political judgement and expertise is not to be underestimated. John's always been, because of his rather curious relationship with the English language, underestimated. People by and large do wear their hearts on their sleeves. I do. Gordon, whether he was saying what he thought or not, you could always tell. Tony was probably the most able to hide what he was thinking. John Prescott is somebody who you know when he's in a good mood, you know when he's in a bad mood. You know when he's serious, you know when he's not. And I was the person who dealt with a lot of that.
Peter Mandelson doesn't come out of the book so well.
I never felt I could be totally open with Peter. But funnily enough, in this recent campaign, we worked really well together. Total openness, close. Back then I was never quite sure what he was up to. But that's part of who Peter is. The other thing I've learnt over time is that we've all got strengths and weaknesses and you have to appreciate all of them. Sometimes the weakness is just the flip of the strength. It's the other side of the coin and so you don't necessarily get one without the other.
Is there part of you that would have liked to have been an elected politician but had enough self-knowledge to know that you were psychologically unsuited?
The answer to the first part is yes. The answer to the second part is no. I would be quite suited to it but it's just the way it has worked out. In 1994, I was getting bored with journalism. I was thinking about moving into politics in some way. Then John Smith dies, Tony asks me to work for him and I do. There's a passage towards the end of this volume that I'd totally forgotten about until I transcribed the diaries where Tony starts sounding me out about whether I should stand. By then I felt I was doing what I needed to do for him and for the Labour Party in that position. By 2001 I'm thinking, as David Miliband, Pat McFadden, James Purnell are all starting to get seats... maybe I should do that. But by then I'm kind of a round peg in a round hole. But by 2003, when I left, I just wanted out. By 2005, when I go back, it's very much to go back and that's it. In 2010 I go back again and I sort of feel if I was going to stand I should have done it when [David] Miliband did.
Surely when Kitty Ussher stepped down in Burnley, you must have thought, maybe now's the time?
I did think that in 2005. And I thought it again this year. When we lost Burnley I felt quite bad because I could have won that. But you just have to make judgements and I did when I left in 2003.
You will never escape the so-called dodgy dossier, however much you try and explain what it was or what it was not. That will hang around your neck for the rest of you life.
That's for you to say. I get asked about it in interviews but when I go about the place talking to people it very rarely comes up.
You will always be associated with David Kelly.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of it are, you will still always be associated with that.If you did my sort of job in the way that I did it, there'll be lots of things [you'll be associated with]. ‘Bog standard comprehensive.' ‘People's princess.' But every time I get a cab in London, if the driver is from Kosovo, I never pay. The driver will say: "What you guys did in Kosovo, we'll never forget it." Yes, I accept the premise of the question and it's a very odd situation because I never met David Kelly and yet we became inextricably linked. But all you can do is keep explaining. That would never have happened if it had not been for what [Andrew] Gilligan broadcast.
When you learnt of David Kelly's death, you must have felt like jumping off a cliff?
I felt a juggernaut coming my way. And the truth is, you do think about something like that. I don't want to be pompous about it but [the diaries] are quite an important historical document because they show politics and politicians in all their guises. And it shows how hard it is. It was hard enough for me but what it's like too for Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron. It is such a difficult job. It's why, although I will continue to work against the Tories, I will always try and step back because I know how hard it is. When the David Laws story broke, I did a blog about it. Fiona [Millar, Campbell's partner] asked: "Why are you so sympathetic?" I replied: "Imagine you're in their shoes." I don't know them. I don't know these guys as well as I knew ours. I've got very little time for Cameron in relation to this because of the way he exploited it in our campaign. But I did feel some sympathy for Laws.
Is there part of you that thinks you don't want to push someone like that too far because you've always got David Kelly in the background? I'm not saying you pushed David Kelly to that. But I've always thought over this expenses thing that at some point someone could kill themselves.
No, funnily enough. I can remember when [Labour MP] Nick Brown was being done over by the News of the World. I don't really want to go there. Some MPs did terrible things. The general sense is that they are all at it. But they are not. Most MPs have to subsidise their own existence. You know that, I know that, most journalists know that.
What do you admire about Adam Boulton?
I suppose the way he's been there for a long time. But that's part of his problem to be honest with you.
Have you spoken to him since your incident?
But what happened when you went off-air? Did it continue?
He just carried on ranting: "You're a fucking liar, Mandelson's a fucking liar, you're all fucking liars." Poor old Jeremy Thompson was trying to continue his broadcast.
And what provoked that? Just the fact that he was tired after the election?
I think it's that. I really don't know. He really doesn't like me. A lot of these journalists who see other journalists going over the other side of the fence have an issue with it. If you think about Adam Boulton's life, he stands in Downing Street and talks about what's happening inside but he's not there. Over the years he has really come to resent people like me. I love the way he is describing me as unelected. Most people in politics are unelected, let's be honest about it - civil servants, defence chiefs, the people who run the quangos, journalists like Adam Boulton. The reason I was there is because Gordon Brown, in this very odd constitutional situation [after the election], asked me to go back and help him, and do some interviews because the cabinet were meeting. So Boulton says he resented this unelected person telling him what the government was doing. Well that's what he does 24-hours a day.
Did you actually think he was going to hit you at one point?
I thought he might headbutt me at one point. He came so close into my space. I remember thinking: "What happens if somebody headbutts you live on TV?" Are you entitled, á la John Prescott, to go and hit back or do you have to stand there? I thought he completely lost it. I don't know if it's true but I heard that Murdoch phoned him the next day and said well done. What Sky loves is being talked about. The really funny thing is, I was very conscious I've got a bit of temper, so I was saying to myself: "Keep calm." So when I was saying "calm, calm" I was probably talking to myself! I went back to Downing Street and I walked into the suite of offices at No 12 and the staff all stood up and clapped. I had no idea it had become this instant big thing.
But didn't he do just what you did with Jon Snow after the Hutton Report was published?
No, I don't think so. I did the right thing there. Don't get Fiona going on it! That was one of our biggest rows, of the many we have had. It reached that point where the media wasn't listening on that story. I thought: "Sod it, I'm going to have to do something about this." Now did I get a bit aggressive? People say they want candour and passion in politics and I was very candid. I've not seen that interview since - I'm not someone who looks at how you did on the telly - but I read the transcript when I was appearing for the Chilcot inquiry, and I stand by every word.
It wasn't the words. It was the demeanour.
Yeah but sometimes you have to go just a little bit over the top for people to notice. I'm not saying that was planned. But nobody could say I wasn't saying what I thought.
Do you think it was right, in retrospect, to do the presidential thing after the Hutton inquiry, the podium at the bottom of the stairs?
Somebody else found the venue. It wouldn't have mattered to me where it was. But I think, after all the shit that was thrown at me over such a long period, with war protestors outside the house and all the rest of it, I was entitled to have my say.
How often does depression strike you, and how do you know what's triggering it?
That is a hard one. I don't record all my depressive moments in my diary.
Reading the last book, correct me if I'm wrong, I just got the impression you can tell when something is really building up, but you can't actually stop it.
I can tell. But you can't stop it, no. Some people can. I had quite a bad episode just before Easter. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that was probably all the angst of going back. I'd promised Gordon. He had been trying to get me to go back for a long time. I knew I could help him in some ways.
In your former position?
Lots of different positions but certainly that would have been one of them. I just knew that that it wasn't right, for me. I had a pretty bad episode. Funnily enough, it's just amazing how sometimes other people can see things for you. We were in Scotland on holiday at Easter and met up with Charles Kennedy and his wife Sarah,as we usually do. I don't think she's even aware of this but Sarah persuaded me about how the Tories were stoppable. I'd been saying that Cameron had a problem with the public, that people were beginning to resent the money and the posters and the negativity about Gordon and so forth. So I came back early the next day from my holiday. The point I was making is that I neither saw that one coming, nor did I see it going. You always tend to get a depressive episode after you've been through a big thing. I've had a bit of a wobble since.
Is depression also largely the reason why you haven't gone into elected politics?
No, I don't think so. I would have done had events worked out differently. I still might, but if this coalition lasts five years, I'll be 57 at the next election. I was 53 last week. Depression is interesting because it's really hard to describe. It's like childbirth. I've seen Fiona having a baby three times now. You just think: "How do you ever want to go through that again?" Answer: because you forget the pain. It's the same with depression. When I'm not depressed I find it very hard to explain what it's like. One of the reasons I wrote the novel All in My Mind was because I wanted to give some sense of it. I used to have to wait until I was depressed to get in the right mood to write. But if I waited too long and became genuinely depressed I couldn't write. Having a sense of purpose really helps. What it must be like for people who are depressed and unemployed, I can't even begin to think. To be fair, Tony didn't know how bad it was until he read the diary. I used to tell him but he said he never realised I was actually that bad.
Is it something that unless someone suffers from it they can ever really understand? It's very hard for me to understand because I've never ever had any kind of depression.
Fiona finds it hard as she has to live with it. She sees what it's like when it's really bad. With the kids, even though they can see when I'm depressed, I'm not quite as bad with them as I am with Fiona. With her, I feel that I can let myself go. I remember periods when things were really intense at work, when I was actually in a state of clinical depression. You've just got to keep going. It's very hard.
How bad does it get in those circumstances? Have you ever come close to thinking: "I'm going to top myself?"
No, but you understand why people do. Where I've got to now is, depression at its worst is feeling dead and alive at the same time. You feel you're alive, there's a glass of water there, you know you've got to drink it, you've got to eat but you feel completely dead inside. Where I've got to is an understanding that it passes. One of the first lessons of crisis management is understanding it will end, and that's the same with depression. It will end. It may end in medication, it may end in you going to hospital, but it will end.
When you had the incident on The Andrew Marr Show in February, when you became emotional while defending Tony Blair's conduct on Iraq, were you in the middle of it then?
Possibly. That was just a moment of absolute frustration. I'd been through the whole inquiry. But there's a guy [Marr] who has made a very good living out of being part of this media culture, and when he threw in that question about the figures - for which the BBC have apologised for getting wrong - he got it wrong. He said they were UN figures about casualties. It was just a combination of things. What was going through my mind was that it didn't matter what I said to him. They like to say, like Adam Boulton, that they've got no agenda, they're totally impartial. Bollocks.
What about this role you have now as a sort of ambassador for people with depression? Are you comfortable in that role?
I do it because if one in four people in the public get mental health problem in their life, why should politics be any different?
There are a lot of politicians, past and present who have suffered from depression aren't there?
The Norwegian prime minister told his cabinet he had to resign because of his depression and they insisted he stayed. He took a sabbatical and his ratings went stratospheric. I feel comfortable with it because I've never felt ashamed of it. Some people get cancer, some people break their leg and some people get depression. And it's important that we understand it in politics because I suspect it attracts more people of a mentally-ill bent than other areas. We should be open about it. I won't say who it was, but there were a couple of candidates at the last election who came to me and said: "I've got problems." And I replied: "It's great that you're open about it but I don't want to be prescriptive." I feel it's never harmed me. The press have been pretty fair on this and that's in part because within journalism you'll fi nd there are more people getting depression than you'd realise.
Is it true, as Lance Price told me, that it was actually Tony Blair who made the "psychologically flawed" comment [about Gordon Brown]?
You'll have to wait for future volumes of the diaries.
Oh come on.
No, I'm not saying.
You took the rap for it. Did you, in the final days of the Brown bunker, take the loaded pistol to Gordon Brown and say: "It's time to go."
No. It was a fascinating few days. We were conscious about what was happening with the Liberals. I wasn't aware of what was going on in the Tory party at all. There was certainly a point at which I wrote Gordon a note, saying in addition to pursing this track with the Lib Dems, we do need to start planning an exit. These are really important moments. You've really got to think about this, assuming [the Lib-Lab coalition] wouldn't work.
Why did Gordon Brown surround himself with thugs like Whelan, Balls and McBride?
Don't know. There's quite a lot about Charlie [Whelan] in this volume. I didn't know [Damian] McBride well. Ed Balls does have a lot of strengths. Charlie had some but Gordon would have done himself a service if he'd not had people like that too close to the operation.
What was the truth of the meeting that was held with the Lib Dems on the Monday afternoon of the coalition talks?
I was getting text messages from Lib Dems who were not at the meeting saying: "This is all going very badly." So I sent a message back saying: "What do you mean?" "Oh Balls really rude etc." I contacted Peter [Mandelson] saying: "Don't know what's going on but I'm getting messages from Liberals saying this is going terribly and people are being really rude to them." Peter got straight back saying: "I don't understand where that's coming from. It's going perfectly well." Peter is a very good judge of mood. Afterwards when I talked to Peter and Andrew [Adonis] about it, they said Ed Balls had been polite and Ed Miliband had behaved perfectly well. What that said to me was actually that the Liberals had already made their choice.
They were doing this to get cover with the left-wing of their party?
Absolutely right. Vince [Cable] was talking most of all from a ‘let's try and keep it going' viewpoint. Paddy [Ashdown], Ming Campbell, Charlie Kennedy, David Steel were all pushing towards us.
Which hurt more, Labour losing the election or Burnley being relegated?
I'd prepared myself mentally for Burnley over a long period, but it was a bad week, wasn't it?
What are you reading?
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
Where we go on holiday in France looking at Mont Ventoux.
Best football moment?
Promotion at Wembley against Stockport, bizarrely.
Worst football moment?
Having to come to terms with the fact I'm not in Sport Aid this year because of this book.
Jacques Brel or bagpipes.
Most inspiring speech you've heard (other than ones you've written)?
Neil Kinnock and his Militant speech in 1985. And Bill Clinton at Blackpool in 2002 on why you should always go for progressive politics and why compassionate conservatism is a myth.
Malcolm Tucker or Toby Ziegler?
I've never ever seen The West Wing so I have to say Malcolm Tucker.
Britain's Got Talent or X Factor?
X Factor. Piers Morgan's not on it.