ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on Milne’s power in Labour, sporting cabbies, and a new family venture.
Does anyone know a London cabbie who plays paddle tennis to a decent level, and travels regularly to Spain – where it is called padel – to take part in competitions there?
Strange request, I know. But you see as he drove me to a meeting for which I was already late, I was so interested in what he was telling me about his sporting passion that I momentarily zoned out of my anti-Brexit obsession, and missed the opportunity to commission an article from him for the paper.
Not about paddle tennis, though that might work for the Eurofile section. In fact yes, it certainly would. Its supporters claim it is the fastest growing sport in the world (an honour I thought was shared between triathlon and women’s soccer).
Invented by a Mexican in 1974, it combines elements of tennis, squash and badminton, has really taken off in Spain, has also gained a foothold in America, and clearly has its supporters in the UK, not least the guy who picked me up near Victoria station, and filled me in so enthusiastically on a sport that had become a big part of his life.
But the reason I hope this piece leads to someone twigging who he is and putting him in touch is because he also had interesting things to say about Brexit.
You’ll get an idea of where he is coming from when I report that he said his game name is ‘Bollocks to Brexit’. So, not a fan of the great right wing project that continues to harm our country even before it has been fully inflicted. But most interesting of all he said this: ‘In all the years I have been driving my cab, until David Cameron set the country on the course to ruin and permanent division with his referendum, I never, ever, ever had a single person in the back of the cab saying ‘you know what, we should leave the European Union’. Not one. Ever.’
He clearly never had that Bill Cash or that John Redwood in the back of his cab. But he certainly has a point. I often ask why we are inflicting this terrible damage on ourselves. But for whom is the question that arises from my padel-playing taxi man.
Anyway if anyone out there knows who I am talking about, ask him to get in touch. And apologies to the editor from the editor-at-large for momentarily lapsing in my 24/7 dedication to The New European.
• I am aware that the subject of Seumas Milne is being covered elsewhere in the paper. Writing this as the National Executive meeting shapes the next chapter of Labour’s tortuous Brexit story, who knows what I will be feeling about my old party by the time of publication? Clearly Milne is a significant force in the resistance to a People’s Vote.
Yet he can walk down most streets in the country without anyone outside the media/Westminster bubble having the faintest idea who he is. This strikes me as odd, given my own inability, when doing a similar job, to do anything without a splurge of commentary and profile.
And, unlike Milne, I was a lifelong member of the party, and anything I did was in pursuit of its policy and electoral interests as laid down by my boss, not an agenda of my own born of a public school worldview of the EU as part of some neo-liberal establishment getting in the way of the revolution.
• Until I recorded an interview with Nick Robinson for his Political Thinking podcast last week, I had forgotten that I once said to him: ‘I will never speak to you again after that.’ The that was an interview he did with me for the BBC after publication of the Hutton Report into the death of government weapons inspector David Kelly, a report which exonerated me in a way it did not exonerate the BBC and yet his questioning continued to suggest, in line with editorial policy no doubt, that any guilt and blame should be felt by me.
Contrary to Malcolm Tucker caricature I do not fall out irreparably with people too often, and given I was doing Nick’s podcast, clearly I did not follow through on my threat not to speak to him again.
Partly, I suppose, because with forgetfulness forgiveness becomes likelier (though it will take more than time or memory lapse for me ever to feel fondly towards Andrew Gilligan, the journalist whose dishonest reporting was at the heart of the controversy which led to Dr Kelly taking his life).
But the other reason – which I had also long forgotten until Nick reminded me of the incident all those years ago – was that he apologised. Some time after the interview, I was sitting at home when the doorbell rang. It was Nick. He was standing there with a handwritten letter.
I sensed he may have discussed it with his wife who, if she is anything like my partner Fiona, will have advised both that he had gone too far, and that it was not worth falling out over. Anyway, I hope I am not damaging his reputation as a BBC journalist but in my eyes his reputation as a human being rose at that moment.
An apology can go a long way to healing all sorts of circumstances. The Brexit debate arouses such strong passions it should not be surprising that there have been fallouts within families, between colleagues and inside parties. Recently I was having a right old rant on social media at the Labour MPs who had refrained from supporting a People’s Vote in the indicative votes process.
One by one I went through them, suggesting they would be held responsible for getting Theresa May’s rancid deal over the line, until some of the most prominent People’s Vote-supporting MPs urged me privately to stop, and some of those I had been traducing angrily pointed out they were not supporting her deal, and I was misrepresenting their position.
A few moments of calm reflection led me to the conclusion I had allowed anger and frustration to get the better of me and gone over the top. I also reflected that among those I risked falling out with was someone I have known and liked since he was a teenager, Steve Kinnock. So after a bit of a deep breath I publicly apologised to them all.
I still think Steve is wrong to oppose a People’s Vote, given how the Brexit that was promised is undeliverable, the Brexit that has been negotiated by the prime minister has been so widely rejected, the Tory/Labour discussions appear to go being nowhere slowly, the referendum mandate weakens with each day that passes, and the democratic thing surely is to put whatever emerges from this wretched process back to the people for a ‘final say’ referendum; and he still thinks I am wrong to push for it so hard, and that I don’t take seriously enough the argument that democracy itself would be damaged if the first referendum result was not in some way enacted.
But there is enough badness in Brexit without friendships falling apart. So, sometimes, we all need a bit of ‘sorry’ to hold things together for the long-term. Which reminds me once more of my padel-playing cabbie. He was complaining about how David Cameron had ‘lit the torch paper, and just vanished’. I told him that the publication of our former prime minister’s memoirs had once again been delayed. ‘There is only one word I want to hear from that man,’ he said. ‘Sorry. Sorry for bringing this country to the state it’s in, and division and disunity from which we might never recover.’
• Talking of podcasts, I am finally about to embark on one. Ever since they started I have had people as varied as Ed Miliband, author Elizabeth Day and comedian Matt Forde telling me I should be following their lead and getting into the podcast action as presenter not just interviewee.
My daughter Grace has provided the final persuasion and we shall shortly be launching Football, Feminism and Everything in Between.
Football is my passion, feminism hers, as you may remember from an LBC phone-in which attracted a few headlines because she called in to question my feminist credentials.
We have some great guests lined up. Unfortunately Grace is restricting me to three mentions of the B-word per episode. B for Brexit, that is. I can talk about Burnley, or bagpipes, as often as I like.