Alastair Campbell: the convictions of a spin doctor

When we were growing up, he was the man on the inside. But after Brexit, Alastair Campbell is out in the cold. He tells Ethan Croft how to change Britain's future

Campbell speaking at a rally outside Conservative party conference in October

Alastair Campbell receives more media bids per week than I could count. He burst into British public life back in the 1990s, as the most senior member of Tony Blair’s government not sitting in the House of Commons. In his role as Downing Street press secretary and later director of communications, his straight talking style and taste for creative profanity earned Campbell something of a reputation. His manner in government was famously parodied when Peter Capaldi played Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. So why has this titan of British politics agreed to take an interview with the editor of a modest student newspaper? “Because I think it’s really important for people to stay angry. It’s important that students stay angry. Your future is being taken away from you.”

When I was born, New Labour was settling into its second year of government. Firmly ensconced in Downing Street, Campbell spent his days effing, jeffing, and keeping the red boat afloat. All of that took its toll, and the pressure would have broken many. But now, years later, he appears to our generation not as a vicious Machiavel, but rather as one of the few people willing to stand up to the government on Brexit. I ask him about this reinvention of sorts. Has Campbell’s fear of Brexit brought him back into the spotlight? “I don’t think I ever left,” he snaps back.

It’s true that the abounding energy which saw him tear through the Labour party hierarchy hasn’t dimmed. Alongside editing The New European, interviewing a whole cast of notables for GQ, and appearing regularly on our television screens arguing with any right-winger who’s brave enough, Campbell has just released the seventh volume of his diaries. Though he has been written off by both the left and right as an unprincipled triangulator, this so called ‘master of spin’ has a surprising sense of duty, telling me “I worry I don’t do enough.”

Where his old boss Tony Blair has retired to the pursuit of international charity work, making sparse interventions in UK politics, we still see Campbell in his favourite rough and tumble environment, on Question Time, Newsnight, and ITV’s Good Morning Britain. On that breakfast TV sofa he often fights a war on two fronts, making the case for Britain in Europe against Nigel Farage, whilst fending off professional nuisance Piers Morgan. Of the latter, Blair said: “a slug, but… clever”. Morgan, like Campbell, is a man of strong opinions and a remain voter, but whereas he has sacrificed his conviction for the sake of being in the majority, Campbell is happy in the vocal minority.

Despite the brutish front pages that so-called ‘continuity remainers’ like Campbell and the Tory rebels have been battered with, he is resilient: “the right-wing press will do their worst, they always do. But if you believe in something, say it.” This mantra has guided him to a more radical position on Brexit than many Labour MPs, and he calls his current political home “the angry camp”. He believes he is joined there by “the people who seem to share this sense of frustration, the people feeling politically homeless.” So should his party, Labour, be providing sanctuary for them? On this question, he initially tows the line, declaring “Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party.” But he elaborates on his latent uneasiness about the leadership’s current position on Europe: “there isn’t much difference between what the government is offering and what the opposition is offering. It’s difficult for Labour MPs to stand out against that.” Despite his sympathy for them, if Campbell was in parliament now I sense he would be far less pigeon-hearted on Brexit: “it’s difficult for me to take lessons in loyalty and three line whippery from Corbyn and McDonnell, because they voted against what we were trying to do.”

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The emphasis on ‘we’ is mine; resisting the metamorphosis of the British left over the past few years, Campbell still appears to see the Labour party as an ‘us and them’ coalition, or a “broad church” as some euphemistically term it. Corbyn and friends are on one side, with Campbell and the New Labour disciples on another. The anguished struggle of these two groups to get along has been exacerbated by Europe, the greatest issue of the day which unfortunately divides them down the middle. Wracked with suspicion, many in the parliamentary Labour party are more certain that Theresa May voted remain than Corbyn. It is some tragedy that the issue on which Labour moderates yearn to be so radical – Europe – is one on which Corbyn speaks with such bland orthodoxy. Campbell’s frustration at the Labour leader is clear: “the ones shouting loudest for Brexit are the hard right, and the one thing Jeremy Corbyn has always stood for is being against the right!”

Yet he still sees an opportunity for reconciliation, remarking: “we’ve got to be tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit.” This rhetorical flourish, with its omitted connective and repeated call to be ‘tough’, puts me in mind of a few other third way clichés, notably Blair’s conference speech: “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” But despite the slight throwback to the nineties, the crux of Campbell’s argument is fresh and relevant: “it can’t just be about saying ‘let’s stop Brexit’. You have to address all the policy areas that led people to want to vote leave – immigration, inequality, education, globalisation. The question is, will Brexit provide the answer to that? No.” Though he dresses up the ‘Stop Brexit’ position in the sound bite of a moderate, Campbell’s real plan seems to be radical change, not in our relationship with Europe, but in domestic politics. Though he is still no Corbynite, I ask him to reflect on whether New Labour really did enough. “Did we win the argument that Britain’s future was in Europe? Clearly not. Think about the NHS. It’s cemented in the national life in a way that Britain as a member of the European Union has not been cemented. We were at times too timid.”

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Like another famous Blair acolyte, Peter Mandelson, Campbell was more than sceptical about the remain arguments being pushed by David Cameron and George Osborne: “‘Project Fear’ wasn’t a sensible way to campaign.” In the event of a second referendum, or a “fresh referendum” as Campbell insists I should refer to it, would a radical manifestobe needed to make the country think again? He says: “leadership is about confronting the people with reality. I think that a second referendum is winnable.” Many remainers can sympathise with this sentiment, but given the reaction of the press and some parts of the country to one Tory rebellion on the EU withdrawal bill in December, many also worry that a “fresh referendum” would soon turn stale, and tear the UK asunder. Perhaps the prospect of further division is the reason why the nation’s most famous political arsonist, Nigel Farage, came out in support of a second referendum on Thursday.

Campbell muses on the prospect for a moment: “there would be a price to pay, but I’ve never seen the country more divided than now. Addressing the causes of Brexit, you’d have a better chance of bringing the country together around that, rather than around whatever Theresa May’s trying to do at the moment.” I ask Campbell, if he could return to Downing Street as chief of spin for just one day, what would he tell the Prime Minister to do? “She should make the speech I wrote for her,” he playfully refers to a mock declaration he wrote in The New European, where May revokes Article 50. “She looks tortured, and I think that’s because she knows the country is in decline. It’s just a game of survival now isn’t it?” He repeats the widely held belief that this is a government nearing its end. And though we began our conversation on the understanding that Campbell currently has no political home, it seems that if Corbyn is willing to get riled up about Europe, he is only one policy u-turn away from bringing Campbell and millions of other disgruntled remainers on board.

Though I’ve always thought the term a bit of a joke, perhaps the ‘radical centre’ does exist. It’s just that the punctuation is all wrong. It is not one position, but two working together. The ‘radical-centre’ alliance of both sides might yet bring an end to Brexit.