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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Own your shit, Nigel Farage

Alastair Campbell and Nigel Farage on The Late Late Show (Image: RTE) - Credit: Archant

Alastair Campbell on Nigel Farage’s beloved Brexit betrayal narrative and The Late Late Show in London

Last Friday I had the very pleasant experience of travelling to another country without leaving my own. A short tube ride down the Jubilee Line and I was in Ireland.

The Late Late Show, one of the most high-rating shows anywhere in the world, measured by the share of the local population watching, decamped from Dublin for one night only to be broadcast live from Central Methodist Hall in Westminster. The London audience of almost 1,500 was taken from the Irish community across the UK.

Demand had been huge. There were crowds outside of disappointed people unable to get in. A group hanging around the guests’ entrance blagged their way in thanks to a young woman putting her arm through mine as we walked in, announcing confidently to security that she was my daughter and her friends were her siblings. I was so admiring of the charm and the chutzpah that I said nothing other than ‘that was really Irish’, as they scuttled off to the main hall to blag a seat, and I was led to the green room.

I have never actually been to a green room that was green, but for once it was vaguely well-named given how dominant were the Irish voices and how freely the craic was developing. Lively and fun are rarely words I would associate with British ‘green rooms’. This one was both, not least because some of the top Irish musicians about to perform were tuning up next door.

The reason for the decampment was Brexit, so that even the non-Brexit guests were asked about it. Chat show host Graham Norton compared it to a man who had decided to chop his foot off, despite the certain knowledge that chopping off his foot would damage him, because he had already announced his intention to chop his foot off. ‘I said I was doing it and I am just jolly well going to do it’ kind of thing.

Brendan O’Carroll, aka Mrs Brown, whose Mrs Brown’s Boys show is as hugely popular in the UK as in Ireland, could not wait to be asked about Brexit. As I knew from our green room exchanges, he hates it, cannot understand why we are doing it, wishes that we weren’t, and gladly signed up to record a video to urge Brits and Irish alike to march for a People’s Vote on Saturday. As we waited backstage when O’Carroll was being interviewed, Nigel Farage, who was to be sharing the Brexit panel with me, will have heard O’Carroll say on air that if the former UKIP leader had his way, people like him would never have been welcome in the UK.

Farage is very good at the hail fellow well met act and is always up for a friendly chat about football or – something of an obsession – which journalists matter and which broadcasters are good at social media. But I couldn’t help noticing he was nipping out more than usual for a fag. He may have picked up on the several people in there – among them former Ireland football manager Mick McCarthy, broadcaster Amanda Scanlon, television presenter and model Laura Whitmore and her boyfriend, Scottish comedian Iain Stirling – who seemed to be doing their best to avoid an introduction lest a possible response offend.

The Brexit panel was last on the show – which in true Late Late style overran – and unlike the other guests, who were announced as they walked down stairs to the sofas, we were spared panto-style booing or cheering by being seated during a break.

Farage was neither booed nor cheered. But when he made a direct comparison between Ireland winning independence from the British crown being on a par with the UK leaving the EU he lost them and never got them back. Even presenter Ryan Tubridy, who is more Frost than Paxman in his style and keeps his own views to himself, suggested ‘peculiar historical comparisons’ were not helpful. Farage’s angry spluttering was somewhat drowned by the applause for Tubridy’s observation.

Historical ignorance has played a big role in getting us to the mess we are now in. Despite John Major and Tony Blair’s efforts, the potential impact of Brexit on the peace process and the dangers of changing the border arrangements between north and south barely figured in the referendum debate. Despite the efforts of the Irish business community, nor did the potential impact on the Irish economy. The Irish are second only to the UK in terms of the damage a bad Brexit or a no-deal Brexit will do.

The ignorance has continued into government. Shortly before he died, Sinn Féin’s former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness said of his first meeting with Theresa May that he was shocked by how little she seemed to know about Northern Ireland and how little she seemed to understand the complexity of the issues there. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given she often reminds people she is the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, he also felt she saw the politics of Northern Ireland through a Unionist prism.

That was even before her failed attempt to win a landslide for her now very pinkish red lines, and an election gambit which led to her needing the support of the blood-red lined DUP to prop up her government, at the cost of what could yet turn out to be the least effective one billion pound bribe of all time.

Then of course we had the astonishing admission from secretary of state Karen Bradley – it is one thing to be ignorant, quite another to admit it – that she did not know before she took the job that unionists didn’t vote for nationalists and vice versa.

The ignorance of history has been matched by wilful disregard for the realities of the pressures that Brexit has put on Ireland both in the North and in the Republic. Rather than admit there is an issue with the border – and I think I prefer to heed the word of the head of the Police Service Northern Ireland on this – when asked for an actual plan, Brextremists bluster that the issue has been ‘weaponised’ by Remainers, the EU, and the Irish government. Both their no-deal and the Canada-type free trade deal options cannot be delivered without undermining fundamental tenets of the Good Friday Agreement. They seem neither to know nor care.

Fair to say on the Late Late, I was on home ground, with most Irish people, in the UK and Ireland, very opposed to Brexit and the damage it will do to both countries. So whether pointing out that the Brexit now on offer bore no resemblance to the Brexit promised by anyone, or telling Farage to ‘own your shit, Nigel’ as he trotted out his beloved betrayal narrative, the audience seemed totally onside. But I think the warmest response came when I told them about the march, and urged them to join it, because they too have a stake in trying to win a People’s Vote, with the option to Remain.

In her statement to the Commons on the latest twists of the Brexit farce, Theresa May was repeatedly asked why she would not even consider a People’s Vote as a possible way out of the impasse. Her formulaic, at times word-for-word response, to the effect that we had the People’s Vote on June 23, 2016, reminded me so much, in tone and substance, of her constant denials after she first became prime minister that she intended to hold a snap election. That gave me hope.

So did the one response when, deliberately or not, she slipped the moorings of her formula. Tory MP Heidi Allen asked her whether, in the event of a no-deal she knows she can’t get through the Commons, and given she says she would not ask for more time from the EU, the only way out of the impasse might be to put the issue back to the people.

That she did not say deliver a robot-style ‘no’ may have been because she was tired and lost her concentration. Or it may be that she is slowly inching towards the logic. So when she said we would have to ‘see what position the House would take in those circumstances’, that might have been a very important moment. If so, a huge show of public support for a People’s Vote can only help deliver the right outcome for the country.

The last People’s Vote march in London, which drew a crowd of more than 100,000, was a turning point in that it was the moment when the media realised this was a proper campaign. Saturday has to be a similar turning point, the moment when it dawns on MPs that if they resist the idea of the deal being put back to the people, the people will exact a price.

It must be big. I believe it will be. And if there are a few Irish in there too, thanks a million, you’re very welcome. Two phrases I heard rather more often than Nigel Farage did last Friday.

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