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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Don’t buy into Sunak’s election distraction tactics

The sooner the prime minister calls an election, the better

Image: The New European

A huge welcome above all to new subscribers who joined us over Christmas and the New Year on the back of a promise of a book compiling my columns here from last year. You are joining an ever-growing body of people who, to my and everyone else’s surprise, have helped turn the New European into a profitable venture.

Profit was a million miles away from the mind of Matt Kelly when he had the idea of setting up a new paper, dedicated in large part to calling out the madness of Brexit, in the wake of the referendum of June 23, 2016. Indeed, when he first called me, a few days after that awful event, to see if I was interested in being involved, he said the idea was a pop-up paper, with a commitment to publish for four weeks and see where we were.

It would be an opportunity to vent a bit of rage at the crooks and charlatans who had brought the madness into being by lying convincingly enough to persuade the people they claimed to be fighting for to vote against their own and their country’s interests. To be honest, it sounded less like a business plan than a political tantrum… so I said yes.

Seven and half years on, I am pleased to say I have contributed to every edition, and proud to have played a part in helping Matt and his tiny full-time team keep the paper going so that whereas once it was hard to imagine a print-first new media operation surviving in the digital age, now it is hard to imagine our media landscape without this new addition.

Profit remains well down the list of motivations for all involved. And though the never-ending and ever-expanding downsides of Brexit get more attention here than in most parts of our media, the paper has developed into much more than a Brexit-venting space too. As long-standing readers tell us week after week, we cover stories home and abroad that others ignore or cover up; and I would put the quality of our writing on culture up against that of more established and better-funded papers.

Also we don’t buy the self-serving nonsense from much of the media that “dog doesn’t eat dog.” Our press, especially the right wing majority with its overbearing influence on the broadcast media, and now its own echo chamber TV channels, has been a significant contributor to the mess the country is in. A dumbed-down political debate; the normalisation of lying and corruption in public life; nationalism masquerading as patriotism; newspapers that exist to help the powerful maintain and develop their wealth and power, rather than speak truth to them and hold them to account.

So to our new readers… welcome to a paper that refuses to accept that Johnson-style lying, Truss-style ideological vandalism or Mone-style profiteering and intimidation of those who expose it have any place in British political life, and which will never tire of pointing out the realities of the consequences of Brexit, while its cheerleaders continue to erode their credibility by endlessly telling their readers it’s not going as badly as we Remoaners pretend.

Because it is. I know it. You know it. And do you know what? They know it. They just can’t bring themselves to say so. For that would be to tell the truth, and when it comes to politics in particular, they have kind of lost the habit.

Last week I expressed support for David Cameron’s attempts as prime minister to put well-being at the heart of policy-making. This week (don’t worry, I am not going soft, austerity was a disaster, his Brexit referendum likewise) it is the loss of another well-intentioned Cameron move which didn’t stand the test of time I wish to lament, namely the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011.

Legislating for a default fixed election time, it was a rare case of a prime minister doing something that clearly reduced his own power, namely the power to decide the date of a general election, which hands considerable tactical and planning advantage to the occupant of No 10. Needless to say, Boris Johnson, to whom personal ambition and power are all, undid it, with the aptly named Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022. Dissolute indeed, before, during and since his time as PM.

Two prime ministers later, Rishi Sunak is clearly much closer to Johnson than to Cameron on this one. With the news media last Thursday morning devoting considerable attention to a Keir Starmer speech setting out his priorities for the year ahead, Sunak said that his “working assumption” was that the election would be held “in the second half of the year.” Cue an avalanche of blah from the people well paid to explain to viewers and listeners what is happening in our politics.

Even as they breathlessly reported this “breaking news”, some openly admitted that its significance was limited, as he ruled nothing in nor out, and could easily change his mind, but they nonetheless blathered away endlessly about the pros of cons of a May election, an October election, or going full distance to the winter.

The whole thing will have left the No 10 spin machine with a warm glow; Starmer suddenly second not first on the news, and his after-speech interviews all about what Sunak said, rather than what he had said. But above all satisfaction in knowing that every time they need a distraction, all they need do is drop a hint on election timing, and the media will dance to their tune. It minimises the space devoted to proper analysis of what is actually happening in the country, the stuff rarely given the coverage it merits – like poverty and destitution, and public services falling to bits.

It would be better for everyone if all media could ignore the electoral timing trick in future but, given that almost certainly they won’t, I implore everyone else to reach for the off button as soon as the breathless blatherers hove into earshot. Until Sunak leaves for the Palace to tell His Maj the election is on, all else adds virtually zilch to the sum total of human knowledge, and is of zero relevance to the issues that will eventually be on the ballot paper.

I visit Scotland regularly, and forgive the huge generalisation, but Scots do tend to debate politics more than the English, and plenty of them will not hold back in telling you what they think. There are plenty more, though, who tend to clam up if they feel you are on the lookout for an assessment of how they might vote, something I have a habit of asking.

But over the New Year holiday, I sensed a shift, with people seemingly wishing to offer their view even before I had asked for it. And all I can say is that it did not bode well for the SNP. “Time for a change” remains as powerful a political sentiment as ever, and in Scotland, so important to the next general election, there are two parties, not just one, feeling its impact.

Let’s talk Britney. I always knew there was something very special about her, which is why the merciless piss-taking I received from press, family and friends back in 2000, when I was spotted at her Wembley concert, and then sneaking into her after-party, was all worth it. So my first book recommendation of 2024… The Woman In Me, by Britney Spears.

Piss-take away if you must, but of the several books I read over the holiday, it’s the only one I got through in a single day.

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