LBC broadcaster Iain Dale has moved his Edinburgh Festival ‘All Talk’ series to Zoom, and yesterday he spoke to Alastair Campbell – the two clashed from the start. The former spin-doctor was seated in a strange, beige-tinted room which looked like a sauna.
Dale asked where Campbell was, doubtless knowing that he likes to spend the summer holidays in the south of France.
“I’m enjoying the last few months of the UK being part of [what is] probably the greatest peace-keeping institution on the planet.
Dale facetiously responded to Campbell, ‘Oh. You’re in Nato’.
Asking about his support for the People’s Vote campaign and attempts to thwart Brexit, Campbell said that he regretted not having played a larger role during the 2015 campaign and branded the result ‘a complete train-crash coming down the track.’ He held the Eurosceptic press responsible: ‘Murdoch, Barclay Brothers, Daily Mail, Sun, Express.’
Dale retorted, ‘All the media organisations you were desperate to get to support Tony Blair’. Campbell fired back, accusing Dale of ‘descending into small-minded political discourse.’
The prospect of leaving the EU seems to have intensified Campbell’s love of Europe though. For the last few weeks he has even immersed himself in an intensive German language course. Dale asked Campbell about the EU/UK trade-deal – which earned him another rebuke.
“You sent me a text this morning, saying let’s not just talk about Brexit. And all you’re asking me about is Brexit.
Campbell suggested that the government is still unclear about its negotiating aims, ‘according to sources close to Michel Barnier’. The government’s confusion, he went on, is typical of its competence.
“It’s all about these ridiculous three-word slogans they keep spewing out.
This brought him to his favourite topic, Boris, whom he invariably referred to by his surname.
“Johnson hides away from discourse. He’s a coward. I think he’s a fraud. I don’t think he believes the things he’s standing up for at the moment.
Then he had another go.
“I think the guy’s a charlatan, I really do, and he’s got to be attacked on that basis.
“He’s fundamentally unsuitable to be prime minister in terms of capacity and character.
Campbell then denounced the rest of the government too.
“A government of uniquely low quality… I look at Johnson and most of the cabinet and, I’m sorry, I don’t see them as serious political figures.
He criticised the PM for making appointments on the basis of ‘who is going to cause you the least grief.’ By contrast, Tony Blair was happy to work alongside difficult people, ‘Robin Cook, John Prescott and Gordon Brown’, because they were special.
Dale mentioned Boris’s latest idea of daily press briefings from No. 10. ‘It’s Trumpian,’ said Campbell. ‘It’s Putinism. It’s undermining parliament.’ And yet, despite his low estimate of the government, Campbell was eager to help out when the virus first struck.
“I was in touch with the people in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office. I was sending notes and getting a response.
Then he realised they were only humouring him to neutralise his voice as a critic: ‘ I was being played.’ That was quite an admission: Boris’s team succeeded in outsmarting Tony Blair’s master strategist.
Dale asked about Campbell’s experiences during lockdown – and he was commendably frank. At first he said that he enjoyed the freedom to turn down job offers and avoid unwelcome meetings. Then he experienced an energy-rush and a period of extreme productivity, where he was ‘writing articles, blogging relentlessly, finishing a book.’ After that, he put out a few eccentric clips on Twitter which attracted a lot of hate from the trolls. ‘He’s back on the booze,’ Campbell quoted them as saying, ‘he’s off his meds.’
Finally he was contacted by an old friend. ‘Put the phone down for a bit.’ So Campbell did and realised he had ‘reached the peak of this episode,’ and ‘went through a crash.’
He admitted that online abuse is a constant feature of his life.
“Every single day, without fail, I get a picture of David Kelly and a message, “how do you sleep?”.
But he treats it as ‘water off a duck’s back.’ His coping mechanism is to ‘weigh up my actions with the generality of my life which I think has been OK.’
He framed his advice in relation to his daughter, Grace, a writer and comedian. He told her it was worth listening to criticism from family members, ‘but if some sad twat in a bedsit on a laptop says something horrible, don’t worry.’
Last year Grace did a stand-up show at the Edinburgh Festival which was highly praised by most critics. ‘But one was utterly vile,’ said Campbell. ‘And it upset her.’
He did some research and found out that the reviewer was an old Etonian. ‘We’re home and dry,’ he told Grace. ‘We can hate him. He’s a public-school knob!’
Finally, Campbell was asked which historical figure he would like to spend an hour with: ‘Shakespeare. And on the dark side, Hitler.’
He then threw in a German sentence which translated as, ‘He could teach me to speak in an Austrian accent.’
Another strange admission. Campbell wants language lessons from the Fuhrer.