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Why it’s difficult to escape the scandals in British politics

Dark clouds overhead.... a view from Alastair Campbell's 'winter walk' through the Yorkshire Dales - Credit: Alastair Campbell

An excursion to film a new BBC show provides some escape from politics… but not much.

I virtually unplugged from politics for a whole day last week, and felt a lot better for it, until the day ended, and I caught up with what had been happening in my absence. Just another day in the life of an incompetent, dishonest and dissolute government, and a political and media ecosystem failing miserably in holding it to account. But there I go, straight into the politics, before I’ve told you about the day off. I went for a walk. From sunrise to sunset. All on my own apart from a selfie stick with a weird and wonderful two-sided camera attached, which filmed me face on, and my surroundings in 360 degrees. Well, not entirely alone, as out of sight were technical wizards and fixers guiding me on my route, monitoring the pictures, and managing a drone camera tracking me from above. I was making a film for the next Winter Walks programme on BBC Four.

Oh my God, it was nice to get out of London, the near total emptiness of my train north making me feel a bit guilty about the privilege and pleasure I was about to be afforded. It was even nicer to end up in some of the most beautiful scenery on earth, in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, not far from where I was born. And it is really quite strange how quickly you get into walking with a selfie stick and talking to yourself about what you see, hear, think and feel.

So why no politics? Well, first because my phone was off to stop it interfering with the technology, and when I did turn it on to sneak the occasional look, it was to take photos, or check emails not the news. Second, because it is not really that sort of programme. Third, because the series creator and director, Cy Chadwick, gently suggested to me that it would be good to steer away from, er, Covid and, er, Brexit. Given these are two subjects which occupy many of my waking thoughts, this was likely to be as hard as a day without my phone.

However, the politics ban was not a BBC order from on high – I have written elsewhere about my concerns about the Corporation’s coverage of the government, Covid and Brexit – but because the film will not go out till, clue in the title, winter. As Cy rightly pointed out, who knows where we will be on Covid and Brexit come the winter? Who indeed? Certainly nobody that sits at the Cabinet table. Oops, there I go again. So phone off, political talk muted, I walked and talked, and talked and walked, and just bathed in the beauty of ever changing landscapes, waterfalls, wildlife, stone walls, snow flurries and blinding sunshine, and enough entrants for my Tree of the Day contest on social media to last me a month! But even if I’m not doing politics, politics has a habit of doing me.

I guess it goes with the territory of being known for being a bit obsessed about the subject, and the good and bad it can do for the world. I managed to avoid politics in most of the random encounters I had along the way, chats about life in the Dales, farming, dogs, weather, wall maintenance, open water swimming. It was a pleasant surprise to be able to use my German, with the German-born husband of a local woman out for a long walk at the end of the day. Even with him, though, I avoided the B-word. On walking into Settle, however, where we were to take a little break, replenish, change batteries and all that jazz, the B-word could be avoided no more, and not because I was talking about it either. “Stop Brexit” said a large poster in a window. I would love to have knocked on the door and found out who lived there, and why they had decided, despite the reality of what has happened, to keep that poster in the window, with a European flag flying. But I could feel the ‘no Covid, no Brexit’ message from Cy following on behind, and walked on.

As we took a break in the town centre, though, perhaps I found the answer. We had been spotted and word had spread that there was a Winter Walks team wandering around with me in tow, (and before anyone asks we were strict about social distancing and, except when I was walking and filming, or eating and drinking, about masks.) One man had a copy of my latest book to sign, which is always a heartening moment because of the old saying ‘a signed book is a sold book’, – oh, and while I am shamelessly plugging, Living Better was Apple’s audiobook of the week, price slashed to £4.99. A bargain in anyone’s ears. But then emerged a man who had been buying his weekend joint in the local butcher’s shop to tell me to “keep banging on about Brexit”. He said “plenty of people voted for it round here, I know that. But you don’t hear them boasting about it now. The penny’s dropping. It won’t be long before you won’t find a soul who said they voted for the damn thing”.

Once the sun had set, and filming was done, I began the long journey home, catching up on all I had missed in the world. More fishermen claiming betrayal and economic disaster. More musicians piling in. More evidence of problems in trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland because of the Irish Sea border the Brexit liars promised would never exist. More evidence of trouble for exporters to Europe because of the non tariff trade barriers the Chief Liar denied existed even after signing a deal which spelled them out. Lorries returning to Europe empty rather than get strangled in red tape the liars said Brexit would cut. Chaos at Heathrow, the crowds in arrivals looking like a Donald Trump super spreader event, and queues both there and at the big ports making you wonder what level of chaos there would be if Covid was not so slowing the traffic of people and trade.

Ongoing debate about the pathetic decision to withdraw the full diplomatic status of the EU ambassador to the UK. A new poll showing the risks to the Union of the Johnson government and his Brexit folly. Reports that government advisors were suggesting businesses hit by Brexit move to Europe. Hopes of a US trade deal ‘fading fast’.

On Covid, confusion over quarantine policy. Continuing confusion over vaccination strategy, concerning the timing of the second dose. A major outbreak of infections at DVLA amid claims that employees were pressured into work despite having symptoms. Schools to stay shut. Gavin Williamson still in post, still clueless. Another day in which our four-figure death toll was higher than the number of deaths Australia has had during the entire pandemic. The overall Covid death toll topping 100,000, the highest in the entire bloody world per head of population.

And for the third week running, I am listing some of the many scandals which our opposition and our media appear to have given up challenging or questioning… The multiple allegations against Robert Jenrick – his handling of Tory donor Richard Desmond’s housing development; the awarding of a regeneration grant to his constituency; his travelling between homes during lockdown; the investment fund co-founded by Jacob Rees-Mogg moving to Ireland; Rees-Mogg closing shutting down the Brexit scrutiny committee; the Priti Patel bullying report, and Johnson’s decision to junk the code on ministerial standards; the many allegations raised against Tory- and Leave- donating firms securing large pandemic contracts.

Dido Harding and the billions spaffed on test and trace. The venture capitalist vaccine supremo married to a Treasury minister, now replaced by another Tory minister. Leak inquiries that lead the news when they are announced, never to be followed up again. The Brexit campaign law-breaking. Russian interference in the referendum and our life and national politics now.

Johnson stuffing the House of Lords with donors and cronies, including in defiance of the independent commission on appointments. Jennifer Arcuri. The many loose ends arising from Dominic Cummings’ time in No 10. The ignored Sage advice. The missed Cobra meetings. Hand-shaking. Cheltenham. Three late lockdowns. Schools fiasco. Exams fiasco. School meals fiasco. Christmas farce. Care home infection (false narrative ring of steel). False claims re new hospitals. I could go on…

It is frankly impossible to overstate just how bad they are, and how badly they do their job. I had the pleasure of watching a farmer on a quad bike, and his dog, gather in hundreds of sheep from a sprawling hillside, so they could be fed. It was so nice to be able to watch a couple of living beings who were just very good at their job, and to work with a TV team that was good at its job. Can you remember the last time you looked at a minister and said: “He’s doing a good job … she’s doing a good job”? No, nor can I.

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