ALASTAIR CAMPBELL recalls the evening he and the new prime minister met the pop star Miley Cyrus, and what it tells us about the wrecking ball about to hit Britain
Do you want to hear a funny Boris Johnson story? I know, I know, it’s not funny. What has just happened to the country is not funny at all. The man is a liar, he is a charlatan, cares only about himself, thinks he is Churchill remade, when in truth he is a pound-shop Trump, almost as narcissistic, almost as likely to explode in childlike tantrums if he doesn’t get his way.
I know all of that. I have known him for decades, first as fellow journalists, then with him covering the party and the government I worked for, often lying about both TB and me, then with him rising up and down and up the ladder, as I was climbing off it. And most recently as Brexit opponents.
I know too that he has become prime minister, thanks to a majority of the 0.25% of the country who had a say in the matter, by promising to do Brexit by October 31, “do or die”, and the whole thing is awful, scary. Just Not Funny. So Not F**king Funny.
But when times are as bad as this, don’t we need a funny story now and then? Don’t worry, I will be back to serious and heavy, and woe is us about the future of our once great country, before you can say boo to a bent banana or a Brussels-banned kipper.
How’s this for a nice little name drop to get the ball rolling? Miley Cyrus! Some among my generation may need to look her up.
So, the year was 2009, Johnson was mayor of London, my daughter Grace was 15 years old, and Miley was in town. Miley was massive, so Grace asks me, begs me, “Dad, can you get tickets?”.
“It’s tomorrow,” I say.
“I know, but you always get tickets for Rory and Calum [my sons] when they want to go to big sporting events.”
This is true. World Cup finals (football and rugby league). Champions League finals. Internationals, home and abroad. Olympics. Burnley League Cup replays even. I don’t think I have ever let them down. I even managed to get Rory a ticket for the recent cricket World Cup final, and watched the entire thing on TV, muttering to myself again and again, “why didn’t I take the ticket for myself?”
It is probably a little bit of a guilt thing, having been too absent for too long when I was working for a serious, strategic, obsessed-with-the-detail prime minister back in the old days when they existed in Britain.
So Grace, as listeners to the podcast we do together may know*, knows how to get to me. I called a guy I know in the music industry, Rob Hallett. “I can get you three, but they are in a VIP box. Is that OK?” I am of course a man of the people, hate all that VIP nonsense, but Grace loves it, so VIP box was very OK. She was so happy.
“Oh my God, dad, amazing. You’re the best.”
First to arrive in the ‘luxury suite’, I go to the bar, to get Grace and her friend Emily a drink. There is a piece of paper pinned on the wall behind the barman, headed ‘VIP Box Guests’. A list of names…. Boris Johnson plus three. Alastair Campbell plus two. I tell Grace. She is worried we will have a fight, get thrown out, and miss the concert. “Don’t worry,” I say, “I’ll behave.”
Johnson arrives, with wife Marina, Johnson telling me she is “a bit of fan of you and Blair”, and daughters. We talk inconsequentially, and whenever politics rears its head, the girls steer us back to Miley, and music.
Rob Hallett shows up, takes Johnson and me to one side: “Do you want to bring the girls down for a pre-show meet and greet with Miley?” Johnson nods.
I say “no, I think it is fine for the mayor to do that, but a bit weird if we go too”. Grace quickly finds out from a young Johnson what is being proposed.
“Dad! Dad! Why not?” I am standing there wondering whether, for the rest of our days, Grace will tell all that I am a worse dad than Boris Johnson. I think history, and perhaps Marina too, might bear me out on that one, but this was not history, but the histrionics of a tearful daughter. I cave.
The show security team lead us down to the giddy, edgy atmosphere of pre-show backstage. Lots of people fretting and fussing. Lots of angst. We are told where to stand and wait for Miley.
Johnson is ruffling his hair. Hands behind back. His jowls are out. The Churchill proto-voice is booming in my ear. “Is this not remarkable, that we two, Alastair Campbell and Boris Johnson, giants of our time, you the greatest exponent of the dark arts of manipulation since Machiavelli, I the Tory mayor of a Labour city, loved by all, both of us wordsmiths supreme, and here we are standing in line, waiting for a girl less than half our age, who neither of us would recognise sufficient to pick her out of an identity parade.”
He laughs. I laugh, while worrying Grace is going to wet herself with excitement, and a sense of the whole comic nonsense of the scene.
Then lo, the angst-ometer, the fuss and fret level, suddenly rises in the air. Men with stubble twiddle ear pieces the way the personal protection guys at Number 10 never did. Then there she is, Miley, the real Miley, and someone is whispering to her, the way I whispered many times in my life to Tony when he was about to meet someone whose name he didn’t know, and would forget within seconds of the ‘grip and grin’ photo that followed.
She comes over, and Rob motions her towards us.
“The mayor of London, Miley.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr Mayor. I hope you and your girls enjoy the show.”
“I’m sure they will, thank you, Miley. And may I introduce you to my deputy mayor here, Mr Alastair Campbell.”
And I have to say, it pains me to do so, but it was f**king funny. The best part of the joke was that I just had to go along with it. I momentarily thought about saying ‘he’s well known for being a joker, Miley. I am not really his deputy. I am actually on the other side, Labour, Tony Blair, you’ve heard of Tony Blair yes?’. But no, no, no. The girl is about to perform to a packed O2. She is probably pissed off enough she has to stop en route to the stage to meet a few over-excited kids and a couple of middle-aged men. I have to roll with it.
“Nice to meet you, Miley.”
“It’s so nice to meet you too, Mr Deputy Mayor. So nice. I hope your girls enjoy the show.”
And I am standing there, nodding along, mumbling something about how I hope she likes “our great city” – “great city, such a great city, Mr Deputy Mayor,” mutters Johnson – and not just his daughter, but mine! – they are laughing at me.
It gave us something to talk about, and laugh about, for the rest of the night, and many times since, whenever Grace wants to take the mickey.
But here’s the thing. The wit, the charm, making people have a good laugh, he is excellent at it. Great turns of phrase. In Latin and Greek as well as English. At ease in the chair of Have I Got News For You, writing funny columns, and not-so-funny ones about Muslim women and letter boxes, or novels about a randy Tory MP. Pretending to confuse football and rugby. Kipper jokes. He can do those all day long, and the 0.25% will love him for it.
But I have seen close up what it takes to be prime minister. I saw it first as a journalist covering Margaret Thatcher and John Major, not least flying all over the world with them. I often reflected on just how hard their job was, and how much harder we hacks made it for them. Then I saw it up much, much closer with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It is hard. So hard.
There have been moments in my life when I have been encouraged, including by Tony, by Gordon, by Charlie Falconer and other political figures, and by members of the public, not least in a phone-in recently after being expelled by Labour, to stand as an MP, and try to make it to the top.
It is flattering whenever anyone suggests it, even if it makes me feel bad, as it means they think I could be doing a lot more good with my life than I do.
There have been times too, especially recently, when I have thought: ‘Do you know what? I certainly reckon I could do their jobs better than Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn.’ But then I reflect a bit more, or I might flick through the seven volumes of my diaries, and realise… ‘No, I couldn’t do what Tony did there, that day in Northern Ireland, or that brutal EU all-night summit. No, I could not have captured the moment the way he did the day Diana died, or set out a foreign policy vision as he did in that speech in Chicago. Dealing with the press on his behalf was hard enough. And no, I would never have been able to handle that economic crisis the way Gordon did.’
So the urge goes, accompanied by a recognition of my limitations. Perhaps the key to Johnson’s ambition – it must be an Eton thing – is that he doesn’t think he has limitations. But he does. So many. And under the laser scrutiny he is about to experience, they will become apparent quickly.
I just do not think he can do the job, and the country risks paying a very high price for an ambition that knows no bounds, and a worldview without moral compass.
-Football, Feminism and Everything In Between. Available on all main podcast platforms and www.alastaircampbell.org
First series now out – Ed Miliband, Rachel Riley, Jamie Carragher, Maro Itoje, Ebony Rainford-Brent, Josh Widdicombe, Gabby Logan, Kelly Holmes, Sean Dyche, Richard/Scarlett Curtis. And guess what – nine out of 10 came out for Remain then and now! We didn’t do Brexit with Dame Kelly!