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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: When the grillers become the grilled

An annual event sees those used to asking the questions in the hot seat

Image: The New European

Well, that was a coincidence. One day unofficial warm-up man for Keir Starmer. The next day performing the same function for shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves.

Warm-up number one was in concert with Gillian Keegan at an annual event run by Cancer Research in which those normally subject to the grilling get to grill the grillers. It’s called Turn the Tables.

In facing questions from the education secretary I became the first person in the history of the event to be both grilled and griller. Almost a quarter of a century ago, when I was twice daily briefing the media as Tony Blair’s spokesman, I enjoyed turning the tables on Jeremy Paxman, kicking off with a few general knowledge questions about countries then in the news – how could he not know the name of the foreign minister of Bosnia for heaven’s sake? – before going on to the question of his salary, on which he was very coy. All good fun. All for charidee.

After my chat with Gillian Keegan, Keir Starmer took to the stage to interview Emily Maitlis, presenter of the country’s second-most popular political podcast. In introducing Starmer, broadcaster Tania Bryer said that several recent occupants of Number 10 had all been Turn the Tables interviewers shortly before landing the top job.

If this was an omen it didn’t immediately go down well with the woman seated to my right at the lunch, Lebanese political activist Dalia Salaam Rishani, who whispered to me that she was really not sure about him.

He must have done something right. Because later I noticed that she had tweeted her belief that she had seen “the next prime minister,” that he came over better than his public image and that he was both “honest and decent.” Qualities certainly lacking in our government in recent years.

My Rachel Reeves warm-up act came at the Make UK conference at the QE2, this time with Rory Stewart, co-presenter of the country’s most popular podcast, joining us down the line from Malawi. After we had done our bit she came on and began her speech by saying that Rory and I were an inspiration to politicians everywhere because we were living proof there was a good life to be lived after politics. Nice.

The warm glow this cast over me was only slightly chilled by her description of us as “the Morecambe and Wise of podcasting, but without pyjamas!”

The conference was in the same place where Boris Johnson had a week earlier asked for a show of hands on who thought Brexit had been a good idea. Two hands were raised. One was his. The other belonged to his interviewer, presumably out of politeness.

I did a version of the same question for the 700 people at Make UK. “If we could get back into the EU within two years, who would be up for that?” A sea of hands was raised.

I asked who they thought would be prime minister in two years and gave them a choice of Rishi Sunak, a Tory other than Sunak, or Keir Starmer. We didn’t count but it came out at roughly 10%, 15% and 75%, respectively.

Next question… “When Labour were ahead in the polls under Jeremy Corbyn, who felt reasonably comfortable about the idea of a Labour government?” No hands raised. “Regardless of your politics, who feels reasonably comfortable about a Labour government now?” I reckon three-quarters went up. That struck me as quite significant.

My final question… “Is it a bad idea or good idea that the new King has to say the words ‘Arise Sir Stanley’ to Johnson’s father?’ Another sea of hands – for bad. One hand for good. “Who are you?” I asked. “Another cousin?”

The latest guest on the new Leading podcast we have launched under the Rest Is Politics umbrella – produced by Gary Lineker’s Goalhanger company, as the BBC seem to feel the need to mention every time I am on there just now – is with someone I suspect is barely known by our listeners or by the readers of this great paper. I interviewed Rahima Mahmut on Monday and may I say she deserves to be a lot better known than she is.

Exiled in Britain since 2000, she heads up the “Stop Uyghur Genocide” campaign. Her own story, and even more so the broader story of the Beijing regime’s determination to assimilate and erase Uyghur culture and identity, is profoundly moving.

She last spoke to any member of her family several years ago, her brother pleading with her to hang up because he knew the authorities would be listening. “Leave us in God’s hands, as we leave you in God’s hands,” he said.

She is also a talented musician and we sat and listened to some of her folk songs, some of which, I was happy to tell her, have a touch of Scottish in the tone and feel.

She describes music as “a site of resistance, a vehicle through which I can share the Uyghur experience, our pain, but also our joy. When the regime does all it can to break us, expressing joy is a true act of defiance.” What a wonderful insight.

Try to tune in when we post the interview. It is sad, scary, but also inspiring and the music, oh my God, when you hear it armed with the story as told by Rahima, I defy you not to be moved.

If we needed any further evidence that the Lying Putrescence that is Johnson sees rules as being for others, and not for him, it came with the news that he is still trying to get Der Stürmer editor-in-chief Paul Dacre a peerage despite the appointments committee having previously turned him down.

We are supposed to be impressed, it would seem, by the fact that Johnson has trimmed down his list of resignation honours from three figures to two. This is, of course, another example of the snake-oil salesman tactics he has employed all his life. “Yours for a tenner… oh go on then, a fiver…” for something worth a ha’penny.

In getting the numbers down, Downing Street has accepted the principle that there is something wrong about a man who resigned in dishonour and disgrace being able to shower his family, friends, donors and cronies with gongs, and put the royal family through the humiliation of having to confer them.

Rishi Sunak who, in our ludicrous system, has to sign them off, should put a large red pen through every name on the list.

Failure to do so will leave him as tainted as Johnson and Johnson’s Dad, Dacre and Dorries, and any other ne’er do well or Russian agent he wishes to thank for helping him to become the worst and most dishonourable prime minister in our history.

In a week when there was a lot of debate about media standards and the nature of public debate, may I close with the text I received from a journalist working in a place – let’s call it a state broadcaster – where he is not allowed to express his political views.

“Two things happened this week, one trivial, one important. Trivial one is BBC presenter’s tweet. Serious one is news that corrupt ex-PM is still trying to reward editor of newspaper which is campaigning to end investigation into his corruption with an honour.

“One of the two stories was on the front page of said newspaper several days in a row, and leading BBC news bulletins. The other was never mentioned by the Mail, nor touched by the BBC.

“This is how a country succumbs to corruption. It might not yet be 1930s Germany but 1990s Italy, 1970s Latin America it certainly is.”

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