How I wish my inner Malcolm Tucker would just shut the f*** up once in a while
PUBLISHED: 07:00 05 November 2017 | UPDATED: 10:07 08 November 2017
Our editor-at-large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on trying not to get too shouty
‘Try not to get too shouty,’ advised Peter Mandelson when I mentioned I was doing a television debate with John Redwood. Peter knows me too well. Anyone who saw me up against the Vulcan, either on Good Morning Britain, or a few days later on Sky News, would conclude I didn’t exactly heed the advice. It is so hard, dear reader, when you are confronted by absolute Grade A nonsense, up to and including Redwood’s claim that there has been, and there will be, no negative economic impact from Brexit.
It is hard, too, when you are confronted by people who once said it would be straight-forward to make trade deals post-Brexit, including with the EU, now shifting their position to ‘nobody said it would be easy’, and then fast forwarding to ‘we would be far better off just crashing out without a deal’, as it would bring ‘certainty to business’.
Indeed it would. As Jeremy Corbyn said here last week – no, damn, it was me fantasising – “Certain lower growth. Certain higher prices. Certain higher inflation. Certain higher unemployment. Certain cuts in the public services for which we need extra not less funding.”
A few days later, my partner Fiona and I were sitting in a cafe in Belsize Park, killing time before going to see Armando Iannucci’s latest piece of genius, The Death of Stalin. (Brilliant, five stars, Alastair Campbell, the New European.)
I feel a certain connection with Iannucci via possibly his greatest creation, Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed Number 10 spin doctor trying to keep control of ill-disciplined politicians and irresponsible hacks.
I am often asked if I take it as an insult or a compliment that Tucker is said to be based on me, and I suppose it plays into the caricature, not to mention the shoutiness, to admit it is very much the latter.
How else to feel when, at the height of ThickOfIt-ism, your own daughter comes home one day, beaming, and says: ‘Dad, I can’t tell you what it does for my street cred that you’re Malcolm Tucker’? What manner of psychological damage might have been done if I had said ‘no, no, no, ‘tis not I, dear child, but a figment of a short Scotsman’s imagination exploring general trends in modern political communication’.
The Tucker buttons in me were pressed on the day Iannucci was named in the honours list – I am not a fan of the honours system, and when in Number 10 one of my least favourite tasks was being part of the team reviewing the lists for publication, and then briefing on them. Maybe it was the memories of all that that sent me off on one, the shouty equivalent of a
Saturday morning Twitter rant, suggesting that three little letters ‘OBE’ had reduced Iannucci from comic genius to member of the Establishment, the satirisation of which had made his name. Rule 1. Never go into joke battle with a proper funnyman. His three letter response … ‘WMD’ … had me what I believe the twittersphere calls ‘owned’.
Then when later I learned through a mutual friend his mother had been unhappy at the row I created across the Sunday papers, I felt bad, as it brought back memories of all the times when abuse and controversy were rolling off my back, until I discovered my already slender mum was losing even more weight every time she heard my name on the radio or television.
The final ‘game, set and match to Iannucci’ moment came when we were doing the first post-election BBC Question Time earlier this year, and he was just so damned nice. The Tucker in me had probably been hoping he would sulk in a corner of the green room, growl and snarl at me, make it clear the honours day slight had not been forgotten, and so set us up for the on-screen bust-up the BBC were hoping for.
Instead of which he charmingly accepted my explanation that I had just been having a bad day, and he suggested the problem with the soon-to-be-recorded programme was that we would end up agreeing on everything – as indeed we did. Puzzled that Labour were behaving like they had won; adamant that Theresa May no longer had a mandate for Hard Brexit; and united in our condemnation of the lies told during the campaign, and the role of our right-wing newspapers in helping them.
Back to the café in Belsize Park. There was a couple a few tables away, engaged in very loud conversation. Despite my occasional television shoutiness, I actually speak quietly, and in restaurants, trains, cinemas when the ads are on, or indeed any public place, I abhor loud voices such as the louder of the two – yes, the man – booming across the café.
Fiona gets as annoyed about my anti-noise annoyances as I do about the noise, so instead of a pleasant pre-cinema half hour together, we were on the precipice of a row, taken there by this Braying Loudmouth, and my Tuckeresque desire to storm over and tell him to ‘dial down the fucking volume or risk having your tongue ripped from your fucking throat and slapped on your avo-fucking-cado and scrambled fucking eggs’.
‘I really don’t know why it bothers you,’ said Fiona calmly, for the nth time in our near 40 years together.
‘Well, it does.’
Then, silence falling at our table, Braying Loudmouth and his wife turned briefly to Brexit. I feared the worst. One word out of place from the foghorn and the Tuckerometer would explode. I could sense Fiona fearing even worse, the B word having finally come into a conversation thus far dominated mainly by tedious accounts of domestic life, relatives, work colleagues, Christmas plans, parliamentary sex pests, and their instantly forgettable views of what was happening in Catalonia.
But lo, after the briefest of exchanges on the most pressing issue of our time, in loud tones, wisdom fell from the loud lips, and thus came a moment of inspiration I would never have experienced had Braying Loudmouth been as sotto voce as I.
‘People are entitled to change their minds, you know.’
Nod from his long-suffering wife.
That was it. Then they went back to kids, pets and Christmas; we got the bill and went to the cinema. As Iannucci’s imagination gorged on a truly hideous collection of individuals, all brilliantly played by some of our favourite actors, though I was loving every minute, part of me was longing to get home so I could play around with the inspiration Braying Loudmouth had given me.
‘People are entitled to change their minds, you know.’ It’s so bloody reasonable, isn’t it? And so, possibly, much more effective than ‘oh my God, Redwood, you are totally fucking deluded’.