Speculation mounts about embattled British official

Saturday, July 26, 2003

LONDON -- Tony Blair's powerful communications chief Alastair Campbell has long been a lightning rod for criticism that the prime minister's government puts image over substance.

Now, a furious debate over prewar claims about Iraqi weapons and the suicide of a Ministry of Defense scientist are fueling rumors that Campbell -- one of Blair's oldest and most important allies -- may soon resign.

A statement from Blair's 10 Downing St. office that reports of the top aide's imminent departure were "wishful thinking" did little to quell speculation.

The British Broadcasting Corp. prompted that statement with a report that Campbell and Blair spoke Thursday about the possibility that the aide might go, perhaps as soon as this week.

The report said the men had decided Campbell would leave his job only when he was ready and in a way that made clear he had done nothing wrong.

BBC political editor Andrew Marr took that to mean Campbell would wait for the results of an inquiry into the death of weapons expert David Kelly, expected in the fall.

The Guardian newspaper reported that Blair expressed his full confidence in Campbell and said he was welcome to stay at work as long as he wants.

Blair's opponents on the left and right have bitterly criticized Campbell for years, accusing the former tabloid journalist of relentlessly manipulating news about his boss with little regard for the truth.

He has been at the center of a bitter dispute between the government and the BBC over a report in which the broadcaster quoted an unidentified official source as saying that Downing Street inflated claims about Iraqi weapons to justify war.

The nasty row turned darker last week when weapons expert David Kelly -- later identified as the main source of the BBC story -- committed suicide.

BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan wrote in a newspaper column that his source had said Campbell insisted on publishing a claim that Iraq could deploy some chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes, despite intelligence experts' doubts.

A furious Campbell denied that and demanded the BBC apologize. A parliamentary committee cleared him of the charge, and Kelly testified before his death that he did not believe it was true.

Nonetheless, some critics have said the departure of Campbell -- and perhaps Kelly's boss, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon -- would be the only way for Blair to move past the furor and blunt claims that his government is careless with the truth.

"How long is Mr. Blair going to let this continue?" opposition Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith demanded recently, accusing Campbell of "using the machinery of government as a personal vendetta."

"Until he sacks Campbell nobody will believe a word he says," Duncan Smith said.

Campbell, 46, is credited with helping Blair transform the Labor Party into a centrist, electable party that swept to power in 1997 after 18 years of political exile. He is among the last of Blair's original team still working for the prime minister.

Critics call his style bombastic and controlling. When the prime minister won re-election in 2001, Campbell withdrew from doing the daily press briefing to a powerful backstage role as communications and strategy chief.

News reports say Campbell exerts extraordinary influence on Blair, far beyond the normal role of a spokesman.

"Alastair Campbell stands in a long line of servants who exercise a sinister domination over their masters," Conservative lawmaker Boris Johnson wrote in The Daily Telegraph newspaper.

His allies are mounting a vigorous defense.

"Alastair Campbell is a strong man, a good man ... a person of extraordinary talent who has been a force for great good in the government since 1997," Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell told BBC radio.

Former Campbell assistant Lance Price told the BBC that his onetime boss might go once he felt he'd won his battle with the broadcaster.

"If he does decide to move on it will be a big, big change clearly for the whole direction of ... Labor and for the government -- and not necessarily a bad thing," Price said.

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