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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Rishi Sunak brought the Tories to a new low

Sunak's U-turn on the environment makes Boris Johnson and Liz Truss appear honest and capable

Image: The New European

Two school visits to tell you about – to very different schools, in very different parts of the country. First, Exmouth in Devon, to the Deaf Academy, which cares for children and young adults with not merely varying degrees of deafness, up to and including no hearing at all, but also complex special educational, social, physical and psychological needs.

It is a beautiful building, wonderfully designed, with great facilities for both day pupils and residents. The dedication of the staff and governors, some of whom are also deaf or have deaf children, really is inspiring. Unsurprisingly, in ABC-Land, aka Austerity Brexit Conservative Britain, there are more children wanting to get in than there are places, and the struggle for funding to maintain the high levels of care and education is constant. 

Meeting the student council, I spoke to one young man, Ethan, who described the anxiety he feels each year when his status is reviewed by the local authority and he faces the possibility of no longer being considered eligible. He and others also looked visibly concerned when I asked if they thought much about what they would do when they finally had to leave.

Yet there was something wonderful about the way they spoke of their ambitions too. Alfie, who wanted to be a football coach; Amy, who was doing volunteer work in a museum and hoped one day to get a job there; Mylo, who has a hearing dog, and hoped to get a job working with dogs, or maybe in IT; and council chair Timothy, who definitely had his sights on something political. He looked genuinely excited when I told him all about Jack Ashley, one of the best MPs I ever knew, who was profoundly deaf, yet made an enormous difference to public and political life.

The student council has led and won a campaign to get the area around the school turned into a 20mph zone, and to have a zebra crossing outside. They are now on to their next campaign, and I intend to help them with it. Timothy explained that when important government announcements are made in Scotland and Wales, a British Sign Language interpreter is employed to translate live on screen. Despite pressure during the pandemic, the UK government in London has refused to do the same.

So, Keir Starmer, Ed Davey and other opposition leaders expect to receive a letter from the Deaf Academy student council and, when you do, please reply that if you lead or are part of the next government, you will commit to meeting this simple, inexpensive demand. We shall be watching this space… and then the Deaf Academy council has another idea after that.

School number two the next day was in Islington, north London. To the Tories’ propaganda machine, Islington has become a codeword for the woke, tofu-eating, yoga-obsessed Remainer elite, and of course home to Labour lawyers like Tony Blair and Keir Starmer, though TB has not lived there since 1997, and KS has never lived there at all (unlike the author of the “leafy Islington” jibe, Boris Johnson, whose sexual incontinence began the life of several of his offspring while living in the borough).

No member of the Johnson clan, however, would ever attend Duncombe Primary School. Both the area and the school intake are in the same deprivation bracket as Bootle on Merseyside; two-thirds free school meals; 15% special educational needs; three-quarters with English as an additional language. 

On the morning I was visiting, I passed a queue of people, all parents at the school, lining up at the school’s food bank, set up with the help of donations from people living in more affluent parts of the borough. The headteacher, Helen Ryan, said she could track the exact correlation of demand at the food bank to the cycle of Universal Credit payments. Like many heads, she squarely blames austerity for what she sees as the steady rise in pressures on school budgets.

Yet both here and at the Deaf Academy, you realise quickly that great things are being achieved in schools despite government, but that so much more could be achieved if we had a government that really did view state schools as a priority, and really valued teachers instead of painting them as part of some militant mob hell-bent on strike action.

I sat in awe watching Dan Hoddinott, a 24-year-old in his first teaching job, hold a class spellbound as he took them through a process of evaluating their feelings before they settled down to learn for the day. And then sat with John Collins, the school psychotherapist, as he spoke one-on-one with some of the more troubled and challenging children. Paid a lot less, they had the kind of empathy and professionalism that we see all too rarely from government ministers as day after day they traipse on to the telly to tell us how well they are doing.

Then to the student council, children aged seven to 11, sitting with the assistant head, Caroline Haydon, and trying to work up some fundraising ideas, both for a local children’s hospice and for the school foodbank. Britain 2023. 

The Duncombe kids are unlikely to match the $3m Rishi Sunak and his wife gave to an American school, but at least they can genuinely say they are really trying to do what Sunak merely pretends to do – giving poorer children a brighter future; levelling up; delivering on the people’s priorities, blahdiblahdibloodyblah. 

I would take one Helen Ryan over 7,000 of seven-bin Sunak!

Speaking at a book festival in Devon, in what I admit was a back-handed compliment I said that whatever else you said about Rishi Sunak, he was not as big a liar as Boris Johnson, and not as utterly useless as Liz Truss. By the time I read properly his environment speech, I was less sure of my view. 

It wasn’t just the seven bins that precisely nobody was proposing, nor the compulsory car-sharing or extra taxes on meat that were on nobody’s political agenda, it was the arrogant dismissal of expert opinion. Just like Johnson and Gove. Just like Truss and Kwarteng. 

Sunak, after all, is the man whose first big call in politics was to argue that Brexit would deliver a high-growth, dynamic economy. Here is a direct quote from the man: “I wasn’t ideological about it… somewhat analytically I sat down and looked through the numbers.”

Well, Rishi, somewhat analytically I have sat down and looked through your record and your statements, and concluded… I was wrong. You’re on a par with the two who went before you. You might even be worse. Because you’re even more slippery than they were.

The book festival was in one of the most Tory areas of the country, and so I thoroughly enjoyed engaging the audience in some of my regular show-of-hands questions. 

Hands up if you think Brexit is going well? Zero. Hands up for who you think will be PM in 2025. Starmer 90%, someone other than Starmer or Sunak, 10%. Yes, you’re right, 90 + 10 = 100. Not one single person among hundreds packed into a Budleigh Salterton church thinks Sunak will be in power after the next election. 

God, I hope they are right. I’m not sure I can take much more of this nonsense.

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