Alastair Campell sitting alongside Kim Leadbeater MP and Rory Stewart (live on a screen behind) at the Jo Cox Lecture at Pembroke CollegeSally March, Pembroke College Cambridge with permission for Varsity

Alastair Campbell, Sir Tony Blair’s controversial spin doctor and Caius alumnus, recently visited Pembroke College to give the annual Jo Cox Lecture. He appeared alongside his co-presenter of The Rest is Politics podcast, former Conservative MP and minister, Rory Stewart, and the late MP’s sister, Kim Leadbeater MP. Jo Cox, Pembroke alumna, was assassinated in her constituency in 2016 by a far-right extremist. This year, to honour her memory, Campbell and Stewart were invited to discuss the importance of “disagreeing agreeably”, having constructive and amicable conversations across political divides.

Campbell makes sure to tell me that The Rest is Politics podcast, which attracts millions of listeners, was the brainchild of a fellow Burnley FC fan working at Gary Lineker’s production company. Goalhanger produced The Rest is History, which was followed by Politics, Money and Football.

“Our motto, ‘the lost art of disagreeing agreeably’ was given to us by John Bercow,” Campbell explains, in an almost uncanny Bercow impression. “It’s funny because Rory Stewart can’t stand John.”

“Our motto, ‘the lost art of disagreeing agreeably’ was given to us by John Bercow”

One a Yorkshire grammar school boy and the other an Old Etonian, Campbell and Stewart are unlikely friends, made clear when Campbell makes a friendly jibe about Stewart’s signet ring. “We agree about a lot of things but fundamentally we are very different people with very different politics. We’ve only had one very disagreeable disagreement […] I sort of lost my rag.”

Similarly to many of my fellow political nerds who are fans of The Thick of It, I have to ask: “What do you think about being the inspiration for Malcolm Tucker?” Tucker is the overbearing, potty-mouthed communications director with whom Campbell is, for many, closely associated.

Immediately, with a smile, he admits: “Oh, I love it! It’s brilliant. And not because I swear that much […] I was very sad when Peter Capaldi became Doctor Who, because of course that brought in a much bigger audience, and I’m never going to be Doctor Who.”

It’s hard to imagine that this chatty, jokey politico, who’s busy Googling his favourite satirical sketches to show me, is so synonymous with a TV character who once threatened that he would “perform a living fucking autopsy on you with a fucking rusty spade”.

Campbell left his post as Downing Street’s director of communications in 2003 under a cloud of controversy, having been embroiled in the David Kelly affair and the September Dossier of 2002 in the run up to the Iraq War. It is perhaps a sign of the times that he is now such a voice of reason when it comes to decency and standards in British politics.

“Politics is tough at the moment. But that’s why we need young people in it, to get it back.”

“I’m not a great fan of the Tories,” is putting it lightly. On X (or ‘Twitter’ for those of us who can’t quite face reality) Campbell remarks of those in government: “Mindblowingly pathetic” and “Embarrassing. Thick. And dangerous. This is how low our politics has got. Every one of them deserves to lose.”

“We’ve got to make it harder for the charlatans,” Campbell insists. He has a solution in mind. “I think with all the misconduct and malfeasance we’ve seen recently, we’ve reached a point where unless they’re actually really severely punished, like jail, then people will just continue to think they can do what they want.”

Campbell’s new book But What Can I Do? notes a culture of abuse that is rife in politics currently, but also that “it’s really important that young people don’t imagine that that’s all politics is. You’ve got to hang onto the fact you can do amazing things through politics.”

Campbell knows that this perception of a “nasty environment” is putting people off, but still his hopes are placed on Generation Z. Discovering that I’m 20, he exhales in exasperation: “So you as a kind of conscious, sentient political being, you’ve only known this lot. Well that’s just horrific. You’ve pretty much only known Brexit, Johnson, Truss and then this shower of shit […] Politics is tough at the moment. But that’s why we need young people in it, to get it back.”


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As a man who once wrote, “When they cut open my heart I wonder whether it’ll be inscribed ‘Labour’ or ‘Burnley’”, Campbell does have criticisms of Sir Keir Starmer and today’s Labour Party. “They need a bigger scale of ambition. The scale of possibility is huge, so they’ve got to fight for that, and at the moment they’re being too cautious.”

Campbell remains a stalwart of Labour, but he admits that doesn’t feel he’s missing out on the party’s likely ascension to government in 2024. The Rest is Politics is his contribution to excavating the lost art of disagreeing agreeably, and forging a less toxic political culture. It’s something we can all learn from. And in the immortal words of Mr M. Tucker: “Feet off the furniture you Oxbridge twat, you’re not on a punt now.”