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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: The prime minister is sunk

I'm starting to think the Tories are heading back, not a day too soon, into opposition

Image: TNE/Getty

It is important not to get carried away, and if the political campaigner in me was ever to have tattoos inside my eyelids, in front of the right eyeball I would have “No Complacency,” and in front of the left “Anything Can Happen”. But even I, pretty much a full-time, lifelong worst-case scenario visualiser, am beginning to think Rishi Sunak may be well and truly done for, and the Tories heading back, not a day too soon, into opposition.

The only slivers of light I could see in last week’s by-elections, from a Sunak perspective, are these: in Kingswood, though Labour secured a 16.4% swing, amid the low turnout their actual number of votes fell by a third, from 16,492 at the 2019 general election to 11,176; and in Wellingborough, Sunak supporters could argue that the candidate there did even worse because she didn’t have his backing. But these really are slim pickings. 

It wasn’t as if Labour had had a good run heading into last Thursday. We had had the agonising, not very well managed, “will they/won’t they?” on the £28bn Green Prosperity Plan; continued grumblings over Keir Starmer’s stance on Gaza; and then the taped meeting in which by-election candidate Azhar Ali ventilated a discredited Israel/Gaza conspiracy theory, the resulting chaos ensuring the vote in Rochdale on February 29 will not be as happy for Labour as Kingswood and Wellingborough.

The tape had obviously been held back to be released at a time of maximum damage, after it was too late to change candidate, and the Tories’ media supporters certainly ensured Labour got a taste of what a Tory press hammering feels like. There will be plenty more to come between now and whenever Sunak finally summons the courage to put his “the plan is working” to the test.

But in this, too, there is good news. Namely that the electoral force of newspapers is waning fast. They look more and more desperate, more and more pathetic, and Sunak and co look more and more desperate and pathetic in constantly trying to curry favour with them. So defence secretary Grant Shapps (four words that surely should never run consecutively) drones on about woke soldiers in the Daily Express, even as actual soldiers are fighting in various parts of the world, while the country is embarrassing itself by failing to get first one, then two, aircraft carriers to a Nato exercise in which we are supposedly taking part.

The budget is coming soon. All the talk is of tax cuts. Why? Because that is what right wing Tory MPs and right wing papers want to hear. Why? Because they are trapped in the politics of their childhoods or their heyday, when Mummy Thatcher told them all what to think and what to like or not like. So post-budget, the Murdoch/Mail/Express/Telegraph propaganda outlets will be singing the praises of Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, reprinting Tory Party lines to take about how Labour have been wrong-footed, then commissioning a few unreliable online polls to show a big shift in the Tories’ favour.

And, while of course I could be wrong, and yes to No Complacency and Anything Can Happen and all that, I suspect it won’t make much difference, given the dire state of the public realm, which most serious and sensible people are desperate to restore.

When a government is as bad as this one, when we have had 14 years during which so little has got better and so much has got worse, when we have had the twin disasters of austerity and Brexit, five prime ministers, among them the two worst in history, when we have had so many lies, so many scandals, so much gaslighting, so much corruption, then no amount of crazed media propaganda can drive it all from the public consciousness.

Just as Sunak is out of touch with the country, so the owners and editors of most of our national papers have never been more out of touch with their readers. Is it too much to hope that if the Tories are swept away, so will be the right wing rags that have helped to keep them afloat well past the time they should have sunk?

In addition to my view that Labour should put the restoration of decent standards in public life at the heart of both their campaign and government if they get there, and my view that they should make strong defence part of their pitch to the electorate, I also think there is much mileage in saying they will seek to project Britain as a cultural superpower. We still have so much going for us on that front. Unlike all the Tories’ “world-beating” blather, this is one such goal that could be met.

It will definitely mean fixing those parts of the Brexit disaster that have made it harder for artists to tour. And it will mean supporting and speaking up for Arts Council England, even if artists funded by it speak out against Labour in power.

I hope the Arts Council responds to the justifiably angry reaction to its warning that arts bodies could lose their funding if they or people connected to them make overtly political statements. This breathtaking piece of cultural Maoism would not even have got close to being aired in a healthy democracy that values culture.  The same goes for the occasional acts of pusillanimity by the BBC under pressure from the government. A Labour government should restore the strength and independence of both.

I would like to thank Donald Trump and his fanatical MAGA base… for turning me on to Taylor Swift. Obviously, as a man with his finger on the pulse, and a love of music, I knew who she was, and was aware of parts of her story, and some of her songs.

But I am a bit of an obsessive about my musical tastes, so it really takes something special to break into my regular diet of Motown, Northern Soul, folk, bagpipes, Elvis, Jacques Brel, France Gall, Abba, Helene Fischer, the Beatles, the Hollies, Simply Red, Britney and all the other stuff that I listen to again and again and again. And now, thanks to Trump’s maniacal campaign, I’m all in with Taylor. May I call you Taylor, Taylor?

Of course the hook was the feeling that anyone who can get under the orange skin as much as she can has to have something special about her. So, on a few long bike rides in France last week, I downloaded the lot. What a lovely warm character comes through. What a lovely voice. What a lovely country feel. What lovely lyrics and lovely melodies. Just lovely, so lovely. And nobody ever said that about the Orange Fascist-in-Waiting.

Best album, IMHO, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) from 2021. I know it is a lot of the old stuff, but it’s new to me. Go Swifties! I’m with you all the way.

Trump’s former comms supremo Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted 11 days in the job, is the latest guest on The Rest Is Politics LEADING. He is seven years younger than I am, but as we were preparing to record, I pointed out that he looked closer to 40 than the 60 that he is.

He had no qualms about telling me why. “Botox, Campbell,” he barked. “Get yourself into Botox. I had another dose yesterday. See how great I look.” He then added he had dyed his hair “Latin American dictator brown”.  When I said I couldn’t countenance doing either, he told me to get with the programme, or “just carry on looking like George Washington’s grandfather”.

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