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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Hillary Clinton and the raid for the world’s most wanted man

The former First Lady’s account on The Rest Is Politics LEADING is one of the most remarkable pieces of explanation I have ever witnessed

Image: The New European/Getty

I do like a bit of synergy in my life, and here is a synergy of which I am particularly fond – that every time the New European sponsors The Rest Is Politics podcast, the paper gets a big spike in new subscribers. So, welcome to those drawn here by my promotion on the podcast of the recent brilliant “Hate Mail” front page and Liz Gerard’s account of how the Daily Mail has for decades sought to demonise migrants.

To keep the synergy going, excuse me for turning this column into what at times may seem like a giant plug for The Rest Is Politics and, in particular, the new LEADING podcast Rory Stewart and I do, interviewing leaders from various walks of life, mainly but not exclusively politics.

The column is, after all, mainly a diary of my week, and the reality is that last week, in and around all the Good Friday Agreement 25th anniversary events in Belfast, we knocked off half a dozen interviews which we will be rolling out in the coming weeks. Ahead of the gathering, I put out feelers to a fair few of the big figures in town, and almost all came back with a yes or a maybe.

First up, and already out there, is Hillary Clinton. Nice to see her, as always. As always, impressed by her energy, her passion for real politics making a difference, and her breadth of understanding and analysis of the world. If, like me, you loathe Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, do tune in. You won’t be disappointed either by her rhetoric or her analysis.

But perhaps the answer that had most hairs standing to attention on the necks of those in the room came when I asked her about that famous picture of the Obama security team in the situation room as they watched the assault of US forces on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout. She said Obama’s handling of that event was one of the most remarkable pieces of decision-making she had ever witnessed. Her account of it is one of the most remarkable pieces of explanation I have ever witnessed.

Join in the synergy. Check out The Rest Is Politics LEADING, as sponsored by the New European, wherever you get your podcasts.

We do get criticism that we have had more men than women on LEADING, but as former Irish president Mary McAleese acknowledged, given the history of misogyny down the times, there have tended to be, and still are, more male than female leaders. Mary is one of the greatest talkers you could ever encounter. I mean that in both senses… she can talk and talk and talk – we managed to get through an hour and barely covered her 14 years as president – but she is great to listen to.

Given the poverty and sectarianism she endured as a Catholic raised in a Protestant area of Belfast, she is also something of a symbol of the scale of change that Ireland has witnessed in her lifetime. And as the president who campaigned for, conspired for (not least with HMQ), and finally secured a State visit of Queen Elizabeth to the Republic, she is central to the history of UK-Ireland relations.

That visit required diplomatic skills of the highest order. But my God, she can mix it. I recommend to Johnson and his merry band of Brexit bandits, and the leaders of the Catholic Church, to skip the McAleese episode when it comes out! The rest of you will enjoy it thoroughly. Even I had never compared Brexit to a flesh-eating disease. Indeed I had never heard of necrotising fasciitis, but flesh-eating disease is what it is.

And I think Johnson got the message when, ludicrously, he and Liz Truss turned up for the Rishi Sunak-hosted dinner at Hillsborough Castle to thank architects of the peace process. Even he, narcissist though he is, must have felt the coldness of the cold shoulders turning as they saw him loom.

I had been warned Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was a difficult interviewee, at the opposite end of the McAleese talk spectrum, even monosyllabic. He was anything but. Whether on his own life, growing up as a non-white, gay guy in a then very socially conservative country, or analysing the complexities of the modern world, I found him warm, engaging and highly intelligent.

He also gave a brilliant answer to a question Rory Stewart asked about the qualities of bad leaders: “Bitterness. Jealousy. And paranoia.” To be avoided in politics, he said.

Not a bad lesson for life, too.

The trickiest interview in many ways was probably with Gerry Adams. That he is a skilled political operator, and a hugely disciplined communicator, is something I have long known, not least during the many, many hours we spent with him and Martin McGuinness over the years of negotiations.

The trickiest thing of course is how to get round the fact that he will go to his grave denying he was ever even a member of the IRA, when, well… no need to end the sentence. So I said to him: “Gerry, given your political strategy has been so successful, with Sinn Féin the biggest party in the North, and on the brink of power in the Republic, why not just come out loud and say you’re proud of what you’ve achieved as a leader of the IRA?” “Because,” he replied, “that would be to tell a lie, and as you know, Alastair, we don’t tell lies”. He didn’t have to say the word “Iraq” for me to know that was what was coming from the glint in his eyes.

He was always pretty good at saying things without using the words, a skill all sides had to use at times amid all the constructive ambiguity of the peace process.

So the final two interviews were with Tony Blair and then his former chief of staff Jonathan Powell. Tony, of course, is one of the best-known political figures on the planet. Jonathan always maintained a low profile in his 13 years as TB’s chief of staff, but is one of the most impressive people I have ever worked with.

I said early on in the conversation that his greatest strength is his utter unflappability. Rory Stewart later got to see it in action, getting angry – I mean, really angry – with some of Jonathan’s answers on Iraq. But Jonathan has a skill which I, it is fair to say, never fully mastered, despite advising others to do so, which is always to respond to the substance of the question, not the tone. So in replying with the same tone he would have used had Rory asked him about the weather, he showed that utter unflappability in action, forcing Rory from his high horse very quickly.

I’m not sure Brexit hardman turned Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker would accept an invitation to come on the podcast, though I would love to continue our robust exchanges at a black-tie dinner at Belfast City Hall over the damage Brexit has done to the GFA, not least to explore what this evangelical Christian actually meant when he said to me: “In my eyes, you are the devil, the devil incarnate.” I’ve been Rasputin and Goebbels before… but the devil? Mmm. How can I put it? All a bit weird.

But with him a minister in NI, alongside the man who led the campaign to get Johnson back as PM after Truss imploded, secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris, I left the place understanding better why so many were saying the political stasis here is unlikely to shift until there is a change of government in London. Can’t come a day too soon.

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