The kind of place that probably appeals to the kind of people who read political diaries, who like to get close to the ovens and cauldrons of public life.
There is an expression about heat and kitchens, and another one about omelettes and breaking eggs. Both appear relevant to Alastair Campbell in this meatiest cut from the Downing Street years. It begins with a reprise of his entry from September 11 2001, which closed the last volume, and runs to late August 2003, when the logic of 9/11 was playing out fast and inevitably or inglouriously (in the Tarantino sense) according to point of view.
As before, it's a condensed read – "At PMQs, TB thought IDS might do the PCC business" is a fair representation – and awkward, too, in its steady revelation of a man trying to balance political authority against the vestiges of a private life. Campbell's father has a suspected brain tumour. Campbell himself fights off depression with obsessively timed runs to and from work, round presidential and royal compounds, on palace treadmills that ought to have been fitted with LED displays reading: THIS IS A SYMBOL OF YOUR LIFE – JUMP OFF!
At home, he finds himself "walking on eggshells" in his relationship with partner Fiona Millar, an aide to Cherie Blair. Campbell and Millar do seem close to breaking, though equally wedded to the fraught project(s) of the Blair government.
The narrative of volume four is both too familiar and too complex to summarise. It eats like a lumpy alphabet soup: PMQs opposite IDS; Black Rod and PCC; Cobra; GWB; 10 years of ERM; WMD; the "sexed-up dossier"; Dr Kelly; Hutton - It's a period politically hijacked by foreign affairs, which might make it seem more sexed-up than normal, but it's a strain that expresses itself, equally inevitably, in the failing relationship between "TB" and "GB" that makes any dysfunction between Campbell and Millar seem almost idyllic.
A poignant entry from Cabinet reads: "They all laughed, with the usual exception," but there are maybe reasons why Gordon Brown couldn't share a light moment. Much is made of his seething resentment of Blair's adhesion to the top job, but Brown has just lost a child and was saddled with the unglamorous business of running a (pre-)war economy while the leader flitted abroad. There are moments of contrast, none more revealing than that between GB's usual fustian and tatty footwear and TB's "Nicole Farhi shoes, ludicrous-looking lilac-coloured pyjama-style trousers and a blue smock". What?
"Style" apart, though, how do the principals fare? Brown predictably badly. Likewise the "whiny", off-message Clare Short. John Prescott surprisingly well. Robin Cook, equally surprisingly in the circumstance, hardly at all. David Blunkett is hard-nosed and smart. George W Bush more impressive close-to. The visiting Bashar al-Assad has a "weak chin". Hmm. Tony Blair? Better with his back to a wall than on a rising wave, but selfish, vain and prone to unwisdom when Cherie's dealings are concerned.
One wonders about both households, longing to suggest to Campbell that instead of those away matches supporting his favourite team, he might have spent the day at home instead. It would also have spared him the Private Eye gift of "Went to war today. Burnley drew."
But this is not just a book of politics. It is also a book about the kind of men and women who serve it. The effect is bracing. As the saintly Bernard Crick once put it, politics at its best is "lively, adaptive, flexible and conciliatory". One might add: thankless, fatalistic, unpredictable and human. We know too much about these people not to confuse them with the events they tried to steer. But as Crick says, politics is politics, and the best hope we've got.
The Alastair Campbell Diaries: Volume 4 – The Burden Of Power: Countdown To Iraq
Edited by Alastair Campbell & Bill Hagerty, Hutchinson, £25