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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: How should I interpret my Brexit-frazzled dreams?

Alastair Campbell is trying to decipher his dreams. Photograph: TNE/PA. - Credit: Archant

Like many ALASTAIR CAMPBELL has found anxiety over Brexit impinging on his sleep. He tries to decipher what it all means.

There was a time, a few years ago, when I was seeing a psychiatrist regularly, to try to get to the bottom of my on-off relationship with depression. Part of my ‘homework’ was to record whatever I could remember of my dreams, and email these recollections to David, my psychiatrist, so that he could analyse them in our next session. He was looking for themes as much as for detail, though often it was the detail that would lead him to a theme.

If you have read my diaries, it won’t surprise you to know that the clashes between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and the pressures they brought into my life, figured large. So, also unsurprisingly, did worries about family. As for recurring dreams, one, apparently very common, had me turning up for an exam at school and discovering I had revised the wrong books. Another had me running the wrong way up an escalator, or up a hill whose gradient rose to become unrunnable, or taking part in a marathon in which the distance markers were adding rather than subtracting the miles to go… see what I mean about themes?

Once you get into the practise of recording dreams, you learn to develop a state called lucid dreaming, in which though asleep, you are aware that you are dreaming. This enables you to shape elements of the dream but, more importantly for the exercise in which I was engaged, to remember the dreams better. As my subconscious mind dreamt, my conscious mind would say “I must remember this for David,” and, if I was worried I might not, I would sometimes wake up and write it down immediately in the little book by my bedside. Poor old David has had tens of thousands of words to digest over time, but we stopped a couple of years ago, presumably when he felt he knew more than enough about my troubled, sleeping mind.

This week, however, I feel I need to get back in the habit, and tell him…

Dream 1: David Cameron calls me. This is a surprise. He says that there is a “war to the death” going on in Number 10, between Michael Gove, who has become convinced we must not leave the EU without securing a deal, and Dominic Cummings, who is “doubling down on chaos”. He says Boris Johnson is all over the place, can’t make up his mind, is doing campaign visits as “pure displacement therapy”, and we need to “stage an intervention” to get him to decide. “I want you to be on the team for this,” he says. “You have a lot of experience of these Downing Street wars, he might just listen.”

Ah, psychiatrist David would say, ex-PM David, front of mind because he has been busy book-plugging, is taking me back to the TB-GB theme, albeit in the context of a Brexit that didn’t exist when I was running marathons that never ended. He is also taking me to what psychiatrist David calls my “demon”, the belief that I can solve problems others can’t. Indeed, he thinks my depressions in part comes from the waking realisation that, actually, maybe I can’t. I can do my bit, not least through supporting this paper, or toiling away for the People’s Vote campaign, or banging on at the MPs who have the real power in these terrible times, but truth be told, Cameron has probably entered my sub-consciousness because though there is not much we have in common, we do share a sense of powerlessness to stop the Brexit madness.

Dream 2: The next night, I meet John Bercow at Speaker’s House, he having invited me for a charity event (thus far, so real; he has indeed been a generous supporter of two charities I am involved with). I arrive to find him in a total panic, and he asks me to go into the kitchen for a private chat.

“What the hell do I do now?” he asks.

“What are you talking about?”

“Haven’t you heard?”

“No, what?”

“I said it was time for Johnson to make way for a Corbyn-led government, and I would not leave the chair until that had happened.”

As he starts to explain, a bearded, black-stockinged Commons clerk arrives and tells him the guests are getting agitated and he really has to go through, which he does, before I can properly process what he has told me, let alone advise. I follow him through and bump into Arsène Wenger at the top of a staircase, and we have a more relaxed chat about how Burnley have been playing, and he tells me he is weighing up the offer of a job in Italy. He is vehemently anti-Brexit.

Dream 3: The same night. I am in a group being driven in a military jeep and we are being stopped at various checkpoints. At the third, they ask for passports, and mine alone is taken away. The driver carries on driving. I ask when I will get my passport back. He says “you won’t need it where we are going”. I ask him to stop, so I can get out and go and retrieve my passport. He doesn’t stop.

Dream 4: The next night. I am in the Commons again, walking into the members’ lobby. The police on the door welcome me warmly, and we chat briefly about old times. One of them says “the world has gone mad since your day”. The other says he can’t wait for retirement. Then someone from the Labour whips’ office comes over, and reminds them that only people with passes are allowed in, and I don’t have one. “Alastair, you have worked here before, you know the rules.” The police help to keep things just the right side of violence, but an ugly scene ensues.

Make of them all what you will. But I bet I am not alone in having Brexit making my sleep less restful than it should be. Johnson night after night on the news lying, obfuscating, making it up as he goes along; Labour celebrating, as if they have scored a winning goal in the Cup Final, a policy likely to harm as much as hinder the rescue of poll ratings worse than under Michael Foot; Jo Swinson seeming to shape strategy according to Lib Dem share of the vote needs, not what is likeliest to deliver the referendum needed to stop Brexit.

I don’t think I can ever recall a period when my dreams were so dominated by politics. It might help to explain why, even when I sleep though the night, I wake up feeling tired. The feeling of powerlessness, having once been close to the centre of power, is perhaps an obvious night-time intrusion. But add to that helplessness, which is not the same thing. Even pre-politics, when I was a journalist, whatever was happening in our politics, I could usually see a logic to it, and work out, regardless of my own views, where things were heading. In the Brexit debate I have lost that capacity. So has everyone else.

Perhaps my own helplessness is exaggerated by the fact that a lot of people, including many random members of the public, seem to think I have, or ought to have, the answers to their questions. “What is going to happen?” “Will there be a deal?” “Will we definitely be out by October 31?” “Will Labour get rid of Corbyn?” “What will happen if there is an election?” The questions come day and night, on trains, on buses, in the street, even in my local lido. How desperate do you have to be, how anxious, how worried, to interrupt someone having a swim, hoping they might have the answer to the questions keeping you awake at night?

“I don’t know,” is the only honest answer to any and all of the above Brexit-related questions. That is what is breeding the anxiety. Nobody knows. Not the prime minister, not the leader of the opposition, not the speaker, not the Queen, not the journalists who are paid to give the impression of knowing what is going to happen. But now more than ever, it is just that, an impression. They don’t know.

So plenty to be anxious about, plenty to be depressed about even if Lady Hale and the Supreme Court put a big spring in our step. But if it is bad news that none of us know what is going to happen, that is the good news too. When nobody is in control, anything can happen. So we are still in the game. It just feels like nobody knows what the rules are.

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