In the latest volume of his newly published diaries, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell recalls going to visit Jewish Daily Express proprietor Richard Desmond for dinner just after Michael Howard, who is also Jewish, had been elected Tory leader.
The date was November 20, 2003.
Campbell complains: “He [Desmond] was far too warm about Howard for my taste, possibly the Jewish link, but also because though he liked Tony Blair, he described Gordon Brown as a ‘tax maniac.’”
These days Blairites in the Labour Party tend to attack Corbynistas who push conspiracy theories about a “Jewish link”, but is this previously unknown remark not a classic example of casual racism from Campbell, the ultimate Blairite?
The question must be asked: would Campbell have made an equivalent comment about the Chinese? Or Indians? Or Australians? Or two Africans?
Evidently concerned at the challenge he faced, Campbell decided his only hope was to lobby Desmond’s then-wife, Janet: “I told Janet, who seemed a solid citizen, less likely to be swayed, to keep an eye on him [Desmond]. He was someone whose views of politicians tended to be driven less by what they thought and did than by how much attention they gave him. I remembered him saying he didn’t like Hague because he took so long to return calls.”
Despite Campbell’s best efforts, when it came to the General Election two years later the Daily Express endorsed the Conservatives.
In that election campaign, Labour was criticised for using anti semitic imagery in its posters.
One depicted both Michael Howard and his fellow Tory MP and then-shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin, who is also Jewish, as a pair of flying pigs.
Another poster showed Howard hypnotising people and was compared to the portrayal of the Dickens character Fagin in the stage version of the musical Oliver!
At the time Louise Ellman, the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, who is Jewish, said the poster showing Howard looking like a Shylock or Fagin figure was unacceptable. She said: “I think it is very insensitive. I do not think it is deliberately anti-Semitic but we should not have such posters.”
After some initial bluster from the Labour spin machine, the posters were withdrawn.
Certainly we can conclude that Campbell’s comment about Desmond and Howard was insensitive – at the very least. But it surely serves as a very depressing reminder that Labour’s problem with antisemitism is nothing new.
As a footnote, it’s worth remembering that Howard got his revenge on Campbell when he lambasted him very effectively on live TV a few years later: