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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: The Tories deserve to be annihilated at the election

It might even be better for the Conservatives too, but I am less concerned about them than I am about Britain

Image: TNE

I freely confess I can occasionally go over the top in my attacks on political opponents, though my “disagree agreeably” podcast motto has blunted the aggression. Certainly, no such over-the-top aggression was intended when I tweeted that the Tories deserve to be “annihilated” at the election. 

It was a heartfelt product of the rage I felt at a succession of news reports – record high levels of child poverty, record low satisfaction ratings for the NHS, record high sewage spills into our rivers, more post-Brexit tariffs landing on UK exports, more knighthoods handed to Tory second-raters and dodgy donors – which confirmed my view that 14 years of Conservative government have done catastrophic harm to the country. 

So I was surprised when Emily Sheffield, former editor of the Evening Standard, and David Cameron’s sister-in-law, appeared to take offence. “Why do you have to use such aggressive language?” she asked on X. “MPs have been murdered and yet you continue with words like annihilate. These are working politicians, many of them decent, caring and between parties on all sides have also done immensely good things.”

That there are lots of good people in parliament, on all sides, is a point I regularly make on the podcast, and in print. One of those murdered MPs, Jo Cox, was a friend, as is her sister and successor as Batley and Spen MP, Kim Leadbeater. Its quite a leap to imagine my call for the Tories to get “annihilated” was somehow a call for violence against them, let alone murder.

If I had said “exterminated at point-blank range”, her point might have been valid. If I had said “defeated at the ballot box”, my point would have been weakened. Annihilated means “reduced to zero”, and I really do believe the Conservatives deserve to be annihilated, in that I fail to see how a single Tory MP can honestly say, hand on heart, that their government merits re-election. That is what I believe. That is what I meant.

A wipeout along the lines suffered by Canada’s Progressive (sic) Conservatives in 1993 is what the UK Conservatives deserve for Cameron’s austerity, Cameron’s Brexit referendum and all that has followed, above all for inflicting Johnson, Truss and Sunak on us. I also think my language was fairly tame compared with some of the stuff the Tories and their media cheerleaders chuck at Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner, Sadiq Khan and others who have the temerity to think a party other than the Tories should be running the country. Whether you call it wipeout, rout or annihilation, the bigger the defeat they suffer, the better it will be.

In the long run, it might be better for the Conservatives too, but I admit to being less concerned about them than I am about Britain. 

Talking of being tough on opponents, I have just read a huge and rather brilliant book about former Australian PM Paul Keating, someone I have long liked and admired, not least for the way he took the fight to those trying to bring him down. 

First published in 2002, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, which was gifted to me on my recent trip to Australia, came from the pen of Don Watson, Keating’s speechwriter. There is a brief reference in the book to the time Keating looked after Tony Blair on the (in)famous trip we made to Hayman Island in the mid-90s for a meeting with Rupert Murdoch and his editors from around the world.

My diary waxed lyrical about Keating: his energy, his wit, his intellectual curiosity, his political nous, above all his take-no-prisoners approach to his Liberal (aka Tory) opponents. I remember asking him to persuade Tony to be far harder on the Tories, and Keating saying that perhaps Tony was right to be more measured. It was just that he couldn’t operate that way. He loathed them.

My opposite number was a guy called Greg Turnbull, who flits in and out of Watson’s book, and back in the 90s, Tony joked about our very different relationships. Turnbull was constantly having to calm things down after Keating’s outbursts; Tony had to calm things down after mine.

The book’s brilliance lies in the way it reveals the layers of complexity both in the politics which surround Keating, which will feel familiar to anyone who has been at the heart of government at that level, and also the layers of complexity in the man himself. He could clearly be intensely infuriating as well as truly brilliant. 

My direct personal experience of him was almost entirely positive and despite the warts-and-all approach Watson has taken, I remain positive about Keating after learning more about the warts. Keating did not like the book, or the fact that Watson wrote it, in his eyes an act of betrayal.

Given he has not written an autobiography, however, I think he should see it in a more positive light. His specialness comes through.

And if you want to get a real feel for politics from the inside then yes, I might recommend my diaries, but I would definitely recommend Watson’s book, too. At almost 750 pages, you will need a fair bit of time to read it, but if you’re like me, you will get to the end and want to read it again.

Sticking with chats with former world leaders, George W Bush once told me that he became president “by writing lots of thank you letters”.

As often, he was joking, while making a serious point… namely, that you should never underestimate the power of a thoughtful letter. He wrote thousands and thousands of them.

I got one – with a cheque – when I ran the London Marathon 20 years ago. I got one when my father died. I got another when I left No 10. Handwritten. And I couldn’t even vote for him! These recollections of the GWB letter-writing machine were prompted by the arrival of a surprise package postmarked Leeds, comprising a “Thank You” postcard with photos of a fundraiser I had done for Labour candidate Katie White, a heartfelt note in beautiful handwriting and… pièce de résistance… a blanket with two paws and my dog’s name – Skye – emblazoned on it. 

I am not easy to buy presents for. Not much point getting me books because I get hundreds anyway. Not massive on trinkets or gadgets. Not that bothered about clothes. Never worn jewellery and since the advent of a mobile phone with time-telling capacity, I haven’t worn a watch.

So good presents have to be personal. And they don’t come more personal than something for Skye. 

That Katie White is going places. One thank you letter at a time! 

After speaking to a couple of schools in Tunbridge Wells, I visited my old boss, Joe Haines, who lives nearby. He was my boss at the Mirror, having earlier been my predecessor in Downing St, where he did for Harold Wilson what I did for Tony Blair. 

He has his fair share of physical illnesses, but mentally is as sharp as ever, and he confessed that when he can’t sleep he writes policy reform papers for the (hopefully) next Labour government in his head. His Lords reform plans struck me as particularly sound! Also, having enjoyed a cruise to Norway, he is preparing for another in the Mediterranean. He is 96. 

There have been plenty of parallels in our lives so far. If I ever reach four short of a century, I hope I do so with my intellectual and political skills, and indeed my sense of adventure, as intact as Joe’s.

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