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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Cameron is not the answer to Sunak’s problems

The prime minister clearly hoped Cameron’s heft would prevent him becoming a source of division

Image: The New European

As Rishi Sunak looked back on the wreckage of yet another car crash week, in which his Rwanda policy was sunk by the judges, and a sacked Suella Braverman was signalling all-out war, I suspect his resurrection of David Cameron is also heading into the “seemed like a good idea at the time” department of the prime minister’s mind.

The appointment certainly caught MPs and the media by surprise, no mean feat among the leaky dysfunction that the Tory government has become. I thought my son Rory was winding me up when he texted to say Cameron was the new foreign secretary, James Cleverly having been forced against his will to take over from Braverman at the Home Office.

Of course, several years in No 10 – four prime ministers ago – means Cameron does have genuine experience to call upon, is a polished media performer, and unlike several of his cabinet colleagues won’t be sitting there wondering how to replace Sunak.

However, there are considerable risks and downsides to his return. It makes it easier for the opposition to make a big deal of austerity when its chief architect is back on the scene. Likewise, even if the opposition continue to refuse to make a big deal out of Brexit, Cameron as the man who called the referendum serves as a constant reminder of his misjudgment in doing so, and how badly it has gone since.

On the risk front, Cameron’s post-No 10 money-making is likely to come under scrutiny, and could also provoke the divisions inside his party over China, he having pursued what now seems a fairly naive policy in that direction as PM. And in size and stature, there is a risk that Cameron frankly overshadows his “boss.”

Sunak clearly hoped Cameron’s heft would prevent him becoming a source of division, but the reaction of some on the right was visceral. Added to which, just as most MPs think they could be PM one day, many also think they could be foreign secretary, and Sunak did not exactly endear himself to his Commons colleagues by making clear he considered precisely none of them to be up to the job.

The main gift to Labour, however, is that the entire 13-year Tory record, from Cameron to Sunak, via May, Johnson and Truss, is now all part of the same old story, that the Conservatives have royally ballsed things up, and made the country poorer, weaker, less powerful in the world. If Sunak was the agent of change he claimed to be at his recent party conference, this was a very odd way to show it. And if Cameron was the answer, I would love to know the question Sunak was wrestling with before he called him.

“This House believes that Brexit is the biggest political mistake ever made by the UK…” How could I resist, when an Oxford sixth-former, Grace McGuinness, asked me to propose the above motion in a debate she was organising for schools all over Oxfordshire?

So even before I knew who I would be alongside or up against, I said yes, not least to reward such entrepreneurial political engagement by a young person, as advocated on the podcast she already listened to, and the book she had already read.

Grace wasn’t the first debate organiser to discover that these days it is not easy to find people willing to speak up for Brexit. Boris Johnson is too busy raking in millions and avoiding accountability; Dominic Cummings is too busy doing in Boris Johnson; Nigel Farage has gone to the jungle to rake in £1.5m and burnish himself in front of his future Tory membership electorate.

So I was informed a few days ahead of the event that Dutch MEP Sophie In’t Veld would be with me for the motion, Matthew Goodwin and Helen Thomas against. Not exactly Rees-Mogg and Duncan-Smith then, but still I was happy to go ahead.

Helen used to work for George Osborne. Goodwin describes himself as an academic and is also a foot soldier in the huge army of populist commentators able to get regular access to TV by dint of saying that people like him aren’t allowed access to TV because they are not part of the media elite which in truth they dominate.

My only dealing with him in the past was when he published a book complaining people like him couldn’t get their voice heard because the liberal elite didn’t agree with his views; views he was at the time expounding across radio, TV and the right wing rags for days on end.

For some unfathomable reason, he imagined that I would want to meet him to debate his book, and so help his publicity juggernaut along. I politely declined. Well, OK, I suggested that it was like asking Man City to help flog tickets for a Hartlepool match, which wasn’t that polite, and a bit arrogant, but I mean, what a tit.

Anyway, I thought, at least now he would be able to debate with me. Only… we waited, and waited, and the silenced free-speecher (sic) seemed to be silencing himself. No show. “How long should we wait?” worried Grace, as hundreds of schoolkids shuffled impatiently. “Shall we just start and hope he turns up?” We did, and poor Helen had to speak against the motion twice, and did so mainly by saying Chamberlain’s “peace in our time”, Suez and the Truss budget were bigger mistakes than Brexit and anyway we got the Australia trade deal (worth 0.08% to GDP by 2035, I pointed out) and the vaccine rollout (irrelevant.)

But at least she showed up, and even if she lost by a margin of nine to one, it wasn’t really her fault. It was Brexit’s. Even Goodwin seems to have realised that you can’t polish a turd, so may as well not bother.

You may be aware that despite having a fanatical attachment to Burnley FC, when it comes to international football I am very much a Scotland fan. So I enjoyed spending Sunday evening watching the 3-3 draw with Norway, knowing that whatever happened, Scotland had qualified for the European Championships. Germany beckons.

But I can’t help feeling really happy that England stars Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham are doing so well at Bayern Munich and Real Madrid respectively. Bellingham is developing as one of the best midfielders in the world, and Kane is on record-breaking form. If his goal-to-match ratio continues on its current track, he will smash the previous Bundesliga record.

We are so used to seeing players from all over the world succeed in England, but not many have done so well in the other direction. Kane and Bellingham deserve all the success they get, for having taken the risk, and shown, spectacularly, that it can work. Harry and Jude… true New Europeans.

David Beckham is another who has done it home and abroad, and I was delighted to be asked to chair a post-premiere panel on Tuesday, played into cinemas around the country, interviewing him, director Sam Blair, and Ronnie O’Sullivan, Beckham’s company having made a new documentary on the snooker star, The Edge of Everything. Check it out. Brilliant.

It is of course about snooker because that is Ronnie’s sport. But it is also about mental health and really does give an insight into the way pressure can do amazing things, good and bad, to the mind.

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