Today I interviewed master of spin Alastair Campbell, who was speaking at the NHS Confederation conference in Liverpool. A fairly daunting assignment by any standard, especially as it was carried out in front of a video camera at five minutes’ notice. Oh, and I could only ask two questions.

I was intrigued as to how he expected the audience to react to his newly crowned status as mental health champion given he’s primarily known as a bullying spin doctor.

His answer, more or less, was that he didn’t care whether or not people subscribed to that image of him, which had been “passed down” through the media. Funny, I had a feeling the media, rather than his own behaviour, would somehow be to blame. 

With more time, I would’ve liked to ask what it was like to work in the upper echelons of government while battling a mental health condition and whether tackling aggressive work environments – found within Westminster and the NHS – would reduce days lost to stress and depression.

As it happens, he addressed some of this in his speech 15 minutes later, expressing genuine anger at the way MPs who are sectioned get “chucked out” of Parliament. “As a signal, that’s just wrong,” he said.

He also said the Commons should be less adversarial. But his thesis on workplace harmony fell flat when Radio 4’s Today presenter Sarah Montague asked him to “say something nice” about Tory leader David Cameron. His effusive response? “Er, well I’ll come to that in a minute…He’s very good at my old job…He’s a very, erm, I’m not very good at this am I?”

More convincing was his argument that the NHS should be a model employer in supporting staff who suffer with mental illnesses. The upcoming Boorman review will assess whether this is the case, but the staff survey doesn’t make for easy reading. Other findings show NHS staff are almost four times as likely to be absent from work with stress as people with other occupations, as reported in our sister title Nursing Times.

Campbell’s call for the NHS to “lead the way” shouldn’t be a big ask given its primary function is to care for people’s physical and mental health, but I suspect it has some way to go - it’d be interesting to hear whether staff and managers agree.

See for the latest news from the conference