Alastair Campbell interview: My tribalism is being fairly severely challenged

Written by David Singleton on 31 March 2017 in Interview

Tony Blair’s former communications supremo is as combative as ever as he battles to stop Brexit. And yet he is not ruling out being Theresa May’s first mental health tsar.

Alastair Campbell was always one of New Labour’s most tribal warriors. Anyone who spent more than five minutes with the Number 10 spin chief during the Tony Blair years could not fail to detect his utter loathing for the Tories. Only Gordon Brown hated them more, say New Labour insiders. Campbell has described himself as “very tribal” and said that that one reason Blair appointed him is that “I’m Labour to my fingertips”.
But that was over a decade ago and times have changed. “I am quite tribal, but my tribalism is being fairly severely challenged at the moment,” says Campbell, now a leading mental health campaigner.
These days, even Campbell is prepared to work with the Conservative government to get what he wants on mental health. “Before he was told by Mrs May to go and learn about loyalty, Michael Gove was sounding me out about doing something about mental health in prisons,” he reveals. “We talked about that, I was interested in doing it and we were fairly far down the track.”
New Labour figures such as Andrew Adonis and Matthew Taylor have already been tapped up for jobs by the Tories. So would Campbell take a job working on mental health policy for Theresa May if she approached him? He is ruling nothing out.
“It would depend what it was, but I am very interested in this as a policy area,” he says. “I think that if you believe in something, if you care about something, then you should try to make a difference in any way you can.”
Our meeting at the HQ of PR and lobbying firm Portland, where Campbell works part-time, comes 10 weeks after the prime minister’s big speech pledging to tackle the “stigma” around mental health problems.
A frustrated Campbell is still waiting for the prime minister to take action. “We’ve just had the budget. Did it figure at all? So that means it’s not really on the radar. Something that’s a priority is something that you have on your radar the whole time,” he says. 
With nothing happening yet, Campbell fears that the government is using the stigma campaign as an excuse for not taking any other action. He wants to see more resources being ploughed into the area and NHS professionals educated about mental health. He also wants to see a change in attitudes among policymakers to combat “the real danger that mental health services go to the bottom of the agenda”.
How to make it happen? “I’ve always felt that the only way to win an argument like this with a government like this is actually to try and persuade them that if we invest properly in the country’s mental health we’ll be saving money, because we’ll be happier, healthier, more productive, costing less in the long run,” says Campbell.
But he does not sound too optimistic that great strides forward will be made under May. “You’ve got to set this in the context of the bigger picture and that is Brexit. Brexit is absorbing so much of the bandwidth of the government,” he says ruefully.
Campbell has made no secret of his gloomy take on Brexit and he will soon be making more of a noise about it with one of his other hats on. The former spin supremo is joining the New European newspaper as editor-at-large and he plans to use the platform to press home his case that Brexit can still be stopped.
“Theresa May chosen this hard Brexit path. She’s got parliamentary approval for it but I’m still not persuaded it’s what people voted for. I think that once Article 50 is triggered, you’ve got to keep alive the idea that this may still not happen, that the public can decide to change their mind,” he says.

Campbell is also speaking regularly to his old boss about how to fight back against Brexit. He discloses: "I talk to Tony quite a lot and I am absolutely of the view that if you believe that something is happening that is fundamentally wrong and damaging to the country’s future interests that you should fight against it."

The New Labour pair are stepping up the fight against Brexit because the current Labour leadership are failing to do so, Campbell suggests. He reckons that shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer has “tried his best in really difficult circumstances”, but is less impressed with the stance taken by the Labour leader and his right-hand man.
“I’m not wholly persuaded that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are that bothered about Brexit. Every time you hear them expressing concern about it, it seems to be from this quite narrow determination to stop Britain becoming a low tax, low regulation, offshore country. I share that but it’s much bigger than that,” says Campbell.
He acknowledges that Corbyn faces a difficult challenge appealing to Labour voters on both sides of the Brexit fence. But he adds: “Politics is very difficult. I still believe the real fight should be to hold the government to account…. But also to have hanging over them the idea that if actually we reach a point where we don’t get a satisfactory outcome then the public is allowed the option of expressing a different view.”
It is a strategy that would doubtless appeal to the bulk of the 48 per cent of people who voted remain. But could Labour hold on to its seats in declining industrial areas that strongly backed Brexit if it did as Campbell suggests? 
“I can see it gives problems,” he says. “But I don’t believe they’re insurmountable if you can persuade people that that strategy actually is the best way of protecting people’s’ jobs and living standards in these working class constituencies. Which it is! 
“Instead of which you had a situation where MP after MP was standing up saying ‘this is really terrible, it’s going to damage the country, I’m going to vote for it’.”
Campbell recently published the latest instalment of his diaries, which start in 2003 with him having quit Downing Street. In the latest volume, the former No 10 communications director is initially in limbo. He has left government, but still can’t let go or stop defending Blair’s corner. He ends up struggling with both his mental and physical health and having rows with his partner Fiona Millar, who is impatient for him to move on.
“It was difficult,” he says. “I still find it difficult. Part of me thinks I should try and do more to help. But then part of me thinks, what could that be?”
Campbell is evidently reeling from the fact that he often seems to have more in common with Tories and Lib Dems than leading members of his own party these days. He says: “It is extraordinary. Fiona said the other day, you watch a speech by John Major and you agree with every word; you watch Nick Clegg in the House of Commons and you agree with every word; you watch Nicola Sturgeon and you think she’s got a point. You think: what’s going on?” 
As well as campaigning for mental health, working for Portland and being editor-at-large of the New European, workaholic Campbell is also busy polishing off the next volume of his seemingly never-ending diaries. And he has no plans to stop speaking his mind. “I don’t want to be a divisive figure,” he says. “But I find it very difficult at the moment not to say what I think.”  
This article appears in the latest edition of The House magazine.

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