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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Laura Trott’s car crash economics get a free ride

The reaction to her catastrophic interview would have been inescapable if Trott were a Labour minister

Image: The New European/Getty

When she was a colleague at Portland, the strategic communications company I advise, Laura Trott struck me as a perfectly good PR and public affairs adviser. The skills required for such a role, however, are very different to those needed to be chief secretary to the treasury, a position in which you have to be across every aspect of government spending and economic management.

I think back to some of the people we had in the role when Labour was last in power, starting with Alistair Darling, who was most certainly across every aspect of government spending and economic management, both then and, several cabinet positions later, as chancellor of the exchequer. Then there were people like Steve Byers and Alan Milburn, Paul Boateng and Des Browne, all of whom went on to do other big jobs in government. There was Andy Burnham, now mayor of Manchester, and Yvette Cooper, hopefully soon to be home secretary.

Laura Trott is the 12th chief secretary since the Tories came to power 14 years and five prime ministers ago. Two of them, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, went on to become prime minister, so who knows, perhaps she will too. As I said to a group of 10-year-old primary schoolchildren in Dagenham last week: “If Liz Truss and Boris Johnson can become prime minister, so can you.”

I would love to know what Trott’s Treasury advisers said to her after she returned from her encounter with BBC interviewer Evan Davis, in which she appeared not to know that debt is rising as a share of GDP. “Car crash” doesn’t come close. It turns out doing interviews is harder than giving PR advice to people doing them!

Two things I know about Evan Davis are that a) he knows his stuff when it comes to the economy, and b) he is generally very polite in his interviewing style. The closest he got to a more Paxmanesque persona was when he said “This is really basic… I’m amazed you don’t know that debt is rising.” After Trott’s reply, “I think I need to have the figures. I’ve got different figures which… I think we just need to… yeah…” Davis seemed almost to take pity, and moved on to another line of questioning.

If these were normal times, with a vaguely functional government, and an unbiased press, the interview would likely be career-defining, even career-ending. But we are now so used to mishaps, mis-speaks, gaffes, cock-ups, unseemly fights, scandals, acts of gaslighting and truth-twisting, that any new ones become old news very quickly. And of course one of the main reasons is that when it involves a Tory mishap, mis-speak, gaffe, cock-up, unseemly fight, scandal, or act of gaslighting or truth-twisting, several newspapers see their role as ignoring them, playing them down, covering them up, or helping the Tories turn them into an attack on Labour.

Trott is an actual minister. In the actual Treasury. Yet fair to say she managed to retain a fairly low profile in the Tory newspapers last week. Compare and contrast with the avalanche that descended upon Diane Abbott when she got her sums muddled in an interview when she was shadow home secretary almost seven years ago. Yes, seven years. Go on, admit it, you can remember it. Why? Because the press made sure you knew about it. Again and again and again. As a result, the broadcasters talked about it lots too. The social media pile-ons were enormous. “Diane Abbott maths memes” became a thing.

Trott probably felt a little bruised by the considerable online reaction to her interview. But she can consider herself lucky, on two counts. First, she is not Labour, and so the attack dogs stayed largely silent, roaming elsewhere in search of another line of attack on Keir Starmer. Second, she has so many ministerial colleagues, including the man who appointed her, who can always be relied upon to come along in the next news cycle and say or do something even worse, even more embarrassing, even more damaging to the reputation of good governance for which the UK used to have a rather good reputation.

It is good to get out of the comfort zone, and a speech to 300 private school bursars, given both my views and Labour’s plans to put VAT on school fees, fell into that category. I didn’t trim my views, namely that I fully support the change, and would if anything go further. Yet I was listened to respectfully, met with broadly friendly questions in the Q&A, and a few people told me they supported my general stance on education.

David Woodgate, chief executive of the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association, said he had been trying hard to engage with Labour on the role private schools could play in driving up standards for all. Having been into the Lion’s Den, I think Labour might find a warmer welcome than they imagine, or at least a willingness to listen.

Burnley are currently second bottom in the Premier League, and few teams have ever survived from this position at this stage. In manager Vincent Kompany, however, we continue to trust, and I was pleased to forward some “news” that showed him higher up a very different league table.

It came to me courtesy of one of the many PR companies that email me with ridiculous press releases. No matter how often I click on “unsubscribe” (never having subscribed in the first place), back they come with more. With this one, though, the names Guardiola, Kompany and Only Fans in the headline caught my eye. I read on to learn that Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola would be the highest-earning Premier League manager if they all set up an Only Fans account, and Kompany would be second. Champions League!

Based on broadly unfathomable methodology, the betting site behind this ground-breaking research suggested both would make many millions yearly if they were to do whatever is done on what Wikipedia tells me is “an internet content subscription service based in London”. But their earnings would be dwarfed by Zinedine Zidane, whose social media following led the press release author to state that he would earn up to £162m per year if he signed up.

Do they seriously think I will ever write about this guff? Oh, I just did.

Since publishers realised that a mention on The Rest Is Politics seems to secure a sales spike, I get inundated with books, too. I do read a fair amount, but cannot possibly get through all the books I am sent, so many tend to gather by my bed, or make a trip to the Amnesty bookshop in Kentish Town. I took several big loads there recently, many brand new, so I hope they are charging top dollar.

I also get sent books with requests that I provide a quote for the cover, ahead of publication. This week, in came one such for which I am happy to provide this for the front, the back, and anywhere in between… “the funniest book about politics I have ever read”.

Out next month, John O’Farrell’s Family Politics tells the story of two right-on parents, one of whom is trying to become a Labour MP, struggling to come to terms with the fact that their son has returned home from university… to tell them he is a Tory. It is laugh-out-loud hilarious. So much so that I had to get off the tube train four stops early because I could not stop laughing, and was beginning to embarrass myself. Not many books can do that to me.

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