In his weekly column, Alastair Campbell talks about his Saturday morning with actor, Brian Cox, lunch in Crystal Palace’s boardroom and his excitement for a rematch of the heavyweight title fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder.
A bits and bobs column this week… time to show I can still do the more tabloidy thing, not just the vast screeds that have become my custom here.
First bit is about the wonderful Scottish actor, Brian Cox. I spent Saturday morning with him on Primrose Hill in North London making a short film, the third he has made for the People’s Vote campaign. There is something special about seeing close-up, at work, people who are really, really good at what they do.
He wasn’t acting, not in the strictest sense, but he was performing. We discussed the general approach over breakfast, then he penned his own words, then off we went to brave the elements.
‘We have reached the point of no return. But there is a return. We can return it to the people. The People’s Vote.’ Very ordinary words. But if you’re lucky enough to be at the Excel Centre, in London, on Sunday, when his short film will open our latest rally, you will see that what a great actor can do is give a power to words that the words on the page alone do not carry. Does anyone roll an ‘r’ with quite the same effect, as Brian Cox?
Now for a Bob. It was foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt who first unveiled the worst acronym of modern times – the Bobs, people who are ‘bored of Brexit’ – and suggested that we should get on with Brexit to end their boredom. I have been trying hard to think of a more fatuous reason to support Theresa May’s deal. I have failed.
I usually watch Burnley away games from the away end, or from the press box where I do the co-commentary for the club website. But at Crystal Palace last week, I was happy to accept the invitation of Palace chairman Steve Parish, to join him and his girlfriend Susanna Reid for lunch in the boardroom. Part of the attraction was that at every Palace-Burnley game in recent years, he and I have had really good arguments about Brexit. Indeed, my place card had me down as ‘Alastair ‘People’s Vote’ Campbell’.
He is what I would call a real Brexiteer, much closer to the Boris Johnson/Jacob Rees-Mogg/Nigel Farage vision of Brexit than to the neither-in-nor-out version of May’s. I know that in these social media algorithmised days, we are all driven into our own ever-decreasing circles of opinion, so that we end up talking to ourselves and those who share our views. But I like seeking out opposing views on Brexit, not least to try to persuade. It’s why I spent a few hours out and about with Rees-Mogg on Wednesday, television cameras in tow. I didn’t imagine I would win Steve Parish over to Remain, but I thought I might get him to see that a People’s Vote could be the only route to the hard Brexit he wants to see. But no, he could see no democratic legitimacy in a second referendum at all. Work in progress.
I had more luck with his daughter Isabel, who I hope to see at the Excel on Sunday, with her ‘my dad is wrong about Brexit’ banner. Should we win the fight for a People’s Vote, wrong dads and grandads could become a big theme.
Two days later, Susanna Reid was back in the Good Morning Britain studio alongside Piers Morgan, interviewing my old boss Tony Blair. There are plenty of people who imagine that simply by saying the word ‘Iraq’, they somehow justify the notion that Tony should never be heard again. It is part of the same ever-decreasing circles approach to debate I mention above. And I know there are some on my own side of the debate who look at him and say ‘right message, wrong messenger’.
But if you analyse how we have got from where we were on June 24, 2016, to where we are today, with the chances of a People’s Vote way higher than they were, that has been driven by lots and lots of people doing and saying whatever they can to fight for what they believe. The idea that a three time-winning prime minister, with a vast understanding of politics, parliament, campaigns, Europe and change in the world should not be among them is, frankly, ludicrous.
TB came under some pro-Remain friendly fire on social media, as have I, for suggesting that a hard Brexit (which is not the same as no-deal, and the two are becoming dangerously confused) should be on the ballot paper in a People’s Vote. I am as passionate about staying in the EU as anyone. But I do not see how it can be democratic for the choice in a People’s Vote to be between a deal comprehensively rejected by parliament, as May’s will be, and a status quo ante rejected in a referendum. I feel no difficulty in making the democratic case for Remain being on the ballot paper, and have done so here many times. But those who believe in a real Brexit must have a genuine option to vote for too.
‘What if they win?’ asked one disgruntled Remainer. I suggested it was time to see the world as it is, not as we want it to be. ‘What would you like the vote to be… Remain versus Stay?’
Attorney general Geoffrey Cox is emerging as one of the few characters in a government and a parliament sadly lacking in them. His rich, booming voice is an important part of that. Indeed a voice, its tone, timbre and accent, is an important part of any political profile. Cox’s gives a sense of what politics must have been like in the pre-tech times when speakers had to command not just noisy parliaments but sometimes vast crowds without the support of microphones.
But though it is possible to rise to the top these days with a soft voice, it is still a handicap to have a weak one. Angela Merkel has a soft voice. But it is strong. Ditto Vladimir Putin. Ditto Jacob Rees-Mogg. Bill Clinton, one of the finest orators of modern times, was often at his best when speaking softly, quietly. But the voice was always strong.
I keep reading that if Theresa May falls, a choice between Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt might emerge as the centre ground, late convert to Brexit candidate to replace her. Both need to understand they start with a considerable handicap. Get working on the vocal chords, guys.
Non-Brexit bit to end… I do a monthly interview for GQ magazine and this month’s is with boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, who looks after Anthony Joshua. I can remember as a child being allowed to stay up late, into the night, to watch big fights during the Muhammad Ali era. We are definitely back in a new ‘stay up to watch the fight’ age. Joshua has made heavyweight boxing glamorous again – indeed he was a recent GQ cover – while Tyson Fury’s back story reminds us boxing has often been a pathway out of dark times for troubled people. It is brilliant that two of the three names in the process of reviving the sport’s most important division are British, and so different. My son Calum was lucky enough to be in the US for the fight, and lucky enough to meet Fury after the event. Calum and I have both had issues with alcohol and mental health, so while Joshua is the winner in the glamour stakes, overall Fury wins on points with us – as indeed he should have done in the fight against Deontay Wilder. Bring on the rematch… oops, Brexit squeezed in after all.