ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on how the issue of Brexit is overshadowing the general election campaigns.
There are so many factors swilling around in this election, I fear the stress and anxiety that Brexit has brought into our lives will rise to a whole new level. It used to be easy. You can have that lot as your government; or the other lot.
Until the Cameron era landed us with coalition government and rule by referendum, and Scottish Nationalism demolished the traditional electoral jigsaw, that was more or less how it worked. Brexit, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn have thrown a bunch of hand grenades into traditional judgements.
On Halloween, as Johnson was not dying in a ditch, I was on a pre-election panel with David Cowling, former head of the BBC political research unit. He told us that across the 2010, 2015 and 2017 elections, only 50% of people voted the same way in all three. Wind back a generation or two, and the churn figure was barely into double figures.
So take the guy I met in the café at the Royal Free Hospital in North London, while on my way for a chest X-ray on Monday. Nothing serious, I hope – I have been having worse than usual asthma attacks, which the doctor thought might be to do with the weather, too much flying, or an allergy, and I suspect, sensitive soul that I am, might be caused by Brexit stress. One coughing fit, for example, interrupted a dream in which I was arguing with Jeremy Corbyn’s son Seb about whether his boss, John McDonnell, should do the TV debates instead of his dad. Unbundle that one, as I say to my psychiatrist.
Anyway, the steroids are doing their job, and the wheezing is under control. If only there was a drug to cure politics as quickly. I cannot for the life of me see how this election will restore the health of the body politic. It feels like taking chemo to fix a broken leg, or a few aspirins to sort cancer.
The man who joined me in the Royal Free café is a lifelong Labour supporter. Jewish. The first part says he should vote Labour. The second part says he can’t. “The anti-Semitism thing is real. I could not live with myself if I put that man in Downing Street.” But he hates Brexit, and says of Johnson: “He makes my skin crawl.”
“So Lib Dem then?” I ask. But no. “I voted Remain but I worry if Brexit in some form doesn’t happen, things could get worse.” He doesn’t like the Liberal Democrats’ ‘Revoke’ policy, and says Jo Swinson “sounds ridiculous” when she says she can be the next prime minister.
“So what will you do?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
As happens so often these days, others quickly join in, and a woman at the next table puts it more succinctly. “I hate Brexit, I’ve been on all your People’s Vote marches, but I can’t stand Corbyn. I blame him for Brexit.” Up pipes someone more attuned to Corbyn’s politics, says that the country needs massive change after austerity. “Look at it in here, there is a 40-minute queue for blood tests, I’m here because there are no seats left, people standing outside in the corridor, staff struggling to cope. Does anyone seriously think Boris Johnson gives a toss?”
Two days earlier, I was in Sheffield for a Burnley game – don’t mention the score – and again picking up a collection of very different signals.
“You’ve had it with your second referendum, Alastair,” shouts a Sheffield United fan spotting me across the road. “Boris is going to walk it against that numpty of yours.” I think he meant Jeremy, despite my expulsion for voting Lib Dem in the European elections. I cross the road.
“So will you be voting Tory?”
“No, my dad would turn in his grave, but I know plenty who are.”
“Like who?” says his mate, unconvinced.
“Lots of fellas at work. Just want the whole Brexit thing to go away.”
I explain that it won’t go away, that Johnson’s deal sets us up for years more Brexit debate.
“Trouble is nobody is listening any more, pal. We’ve had enough.”
“So if you’re not voting Tory or Labour, who are you voting for?”
“Dunno. Thing’s a f**king mess.”
I ask his friend how he will vote. “Not really thought about it. Always voted Labour, probably will, but not sure.”
There is no doubt Johnson’s ‘get Brexit done and then focus on things that really matter to people’ has a superficial appeal. It might, in the end, persuade Darren, who said goodbye with a warm handshake and the wish that “you guys were back in charge” – there is a fair bit of that these days – and tip him to vote Tory. It is why Corbyn’s attempt to park Brexit, and make the election about other things, may be a mistake.
Before showing Labour has the better answers on ‘the things that really matter to people’, they need to take apart the ‘get Brexit done’ part of the Tory strategy, which is but the latest in the long litany of Brexit lies. Johnson’s deal will not get Brexit done. Nigel Farage may be wrong about a lot, but he is right about that.
At the stadium, I meet Dick Caborn, Sheffield Central MP from 1983 to 2010, a youthful 76, and a man for whom the phrase ‘irrepressible optimism’ was invented. He is confident that in these parts, people vote as much for the local MP as for national leaders. That is not how it felt to me in my chats en route to the ground, where Corbyn and Johnson were mentioned many times, MPs and candidates not at all.
I had left London at 5am to get to my sister’s house near Retford, Nottinghamshire, so that I could both see the rugby and get to the Burnley game. Liz had friends round to watch the World Cup final and afterwards, when discussion turned to the election, major confusion was apparent. Like George, a Remainer, anti-Brexit, anti-Corbyn, loathes Johnson, yet who said he was disappointed John Mann was standing down as Bassetlaw MP because “I have always voted for him and would do again”. For George, the MP did matter.
“But he’s voted for Brexit in parliament time and again, and now gone to the Lords thanks to Theresa bloody May,” I said.
“I know. But I could separate the local from the national with him. Not sure I can do that with someone new. The national means Corbyn. I’m just not sure.”
Then there was my Scottish cousin, lifelong Labour, doesn’t like Corbyn, anti-Brexit, anti-independence, not convinced by Swinson. “What do I do?”
It is not just voters who are struggling with loyalties. I know Labour MPs who hope they win their seats, but hope Corbyn does not get a majority. And for every Tory MP who has defected to the Lib Dems, plenty more would be tempted were it not that they were so locked into the electoral process. Do not underestimate how many Tories loathe what Johnson is doing to their party, and to politics.
As I left the Royal Free, I stopped for a chat with John the flower seller. He is another one who thinks we haven’t had a decent government since New Labour. “So what will you vote?”
“God knows. Johnson or Corbyn? What a choice.” He pointed towards Hampstead Heath, where a circus has been taking place. “The pair of them should join Zippo’s, and take Farage with them.” I sensed he might be moving to the Lib Dems, but then he said: “If Keir Starmer was in charge, Labour would romp it.” Starmer is our MP, so would he vote against him? “Doubt it.”
I bought some flowers, not least because he told me his business had been hit by new rules on flowers in hospitals. Then, as I was walking home down Mansfield Road, a man in a blue car wound down his window at the traffic lights, and as I prepared for another friendly chat, he raised two fingers and shouted: “You can f**k off, you f**king w**ker.”
“I’ll put you down as a ‘don’t know’,” I replied, childishly raising one finger in response to his two. The weird thing is, even with clarity like that, I have no idea how he would vote. Am I a w**ker because he wants Brexit, the harder the better? So he might be voting Brexit Party? Am I a w**ker because he just wants to ‘get Brexit done’, and in fighting for a second referendum I am resisting Johnson’s plan, which blue car man will support with a vote for the Tories? Or maybe I am a w**ker because he is a Corbynista and thinks I should get with the programme and help Jeremy walk across the water all the way to Downing Street? Or perhaps my w**kerdom is just a long-held view and he took advantage of a rare opportunity to express it.
Fasten your seat belts. This election is going to be a roller coaster ride of fear and hope, and massive confusion over what we are scared of, and what we hope for. I hope for an outcome that keeps the chance of a second referendum alive. That probably means a hung parliament, which is also probably the best that Labour can hope for. “Hung Parliament”, however, will not appear on any ballot paper.
Whichever way any one of us votes, we are all totally dependent on how all the fears and hopes, loathings and likings, play out in the minds of our fellow citizens between now and December 12. I guess that is democracy. I just wish it felt healthier than it does right now.