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Alastair Campbell vs Rory Stewart: The Rest is Conflict

Alastair Campbell vs Rory Stewart
Miles Bennington

Miles Bennington

Editor of Chamber Magazine

Leading is the new podcast where former Downing Street Press Secretary, Alastair Campbell, and former Tory MP, Rory Stewart, open their address books and interview leading figures in politics and other fields. Utilising their usual genial back and forth, the hosts interrogate their subjects in the most civil way possible. Guests such as Lord Heseltine, Alan Milburn and Michel Barnier are predictable choices from the aspiring elder statesmen hosts, united in their civility by opposition to Brexit. More surprising guests, like Olympic gold medallist Michael Johnson and former Deputy Assistant to the US President and foreign policy expert, Fiona Hill, are interesting but do not take our hosts out of their comfort zone.  

Alastair Campbell – Player or Commentator?

The narrative tension of this podcast, and The Rest is Politics, is how far can we protect civility in politics when the stakes are so high? The novelty of the format is having senior Tory and Labour figures sit down and discuss the issues of the day without the polarised rhetoric we have come to expect from our politics in recent years. If even the shouting, swearing, master-of-spin, Alastair Campbell can calmly and politely debate with a (former) Tory MP, the thinking goes, there must be hope for the rest of our political dialogue.

The truth is that the right wing of the Labour Party and the old left wing of the Conservatives are perfectly capable of having a pleasant chat, especially when there is little on the line.

But, as we hear regularly on The Rest is Politics and as peeks through on Leading, when our hosts disagree on high stakes issues, civility is hard to maintain. The recurring subject of austerity is a particular point of conflict. Was this policy a necessary reaction to a potential debt crisis, a risk ably demonstrated by Liz Truss’ mini-Budget or was it an ideological attack on the size of the state by Tories deaf to the suffering it caused people who rely on public services? Our hosts disagree fundamentally and struggle to remain chummy when discussing it.

They reached a similar point in their recent discussion with Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy. As the newly minted Chief Executive of the charity, Give Directly, Rory Stewart wanted to secure commitments from Lammy that Labour would increase foreign aid spending to 0.7% of GDP and would re-separate the Department for International Development from the Foreign Office. While Lammy made pleasant mood music on both points, he would not commit to either.  You could sense that his primary mission was to maintain Labour’s poll lead so they can form a government, while Stewart was pushing for a politically unwise commitment.

Campbell also pushed Lammy on the issue of Europe, pointing to polls showing that a majority of the electorate now sees Brexit as a failure. Listening to the master of message discipline trying to lure Lammy onto the rocks of the most dangerous subject in British politics was quite a turnaround and shows the distance from player to commentator that Campbell has travelled.

Rory Stewart – loose cannon?

It is that journey that makes both Leading and The Rest is Politics such engaging listening. While Stewart was always a bit of a loose cannon, even when he was a politician, hearing these former insiders speak so freely is intriguing. As the election approaches, the stakes are raised, and more active political figures feature on Leading, it will be fascinating to see whether our hosts can remain civil and whether they will feel they are part of the game or have become mere commentators.

Sadly, there is no word on a spoof podcast featuring Malcolm Tucker vs Peter Mannion. We can dream though…

Nicola Sturgeon
This article is an extract from the latest edition of our journal: Chamber.

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