‘We’re both romantic about what politics can be’: Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart on their double act | Podcasts

The Royal Hall in Harrogate has a long and interesting history. Designed by Robert Beale and the great Frank Matcham, it opened on the site of the former Cheltenham Pump Room in 1903 as the Kursaal – a name inspired by the building on which it was based, the Ostend Kursaal in Belgium (a German word, Kursaal means “Cure Hall”), and which it lost after the first world war, when something a little more patriotic was required. Whatever it was called, however, it always drew the crowds. Beneath its painted coffered ceiling – it is now Grade II* listed – Sarah Bernhardt starred in a special flying matinee of Alexandre Dumas’s La Dame aux Camelias. Edward Elgar came to conduct his own work here, and Arthur Conan Doyle to deliver a lecture. Louis Armstrong and the Beatles both played it.

How times change, though. I realise that its glory days may be over. All the same, if you’d told me five years ago – or even two years ago – that tickets for the appearance in Harrogate of a double act comprising a former government spin doctor and a former government minister would sell out, and quickly, I wouldn’t have believed you. Who on earth, I might have asked, wants to spend their hard earned money on two hours of unfiltered chat on such subjects as a recent presidential election in Turkey, what might constitute inappropriate behaviour in the House of Commons, and whether the manager of Burnley FC would make a better prime minister than Keir Starmer? Aren’t we all a bit tired of listening to middle-aged men of a certain ilk drone on and on? Wouldn’t people rather just stay at home and watch Newsnight?

But Harrogate, it turns out, isn’t the half of it. The double act in question – Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s bagpipe-playing former henchman, and Rory Stewart, who was briefly the secretary of state for international development under Theresa May – began their podcast, The Rest Is Politics, in March 2022. Since then, it has been downloaded 60m times, a figure that makes it one of the UK’s biggest. So far, they’ve taken it on the road on four previous occasions, having performed it live at the Leicester Square theatre in London, the Blackpool Winter Gardens, the London Palladium, and the Royal Albert Hall. Each venue soon sold out. At the Palladium, they shifted 4,500 tickets for two nights in six minutes (faster than the Foo Fighters, someone will tell me later). At the Albert Hall, 5,000 tickets went in a single morning. Harrogate, which seats just over 900 people, must seem like small fry in comparison, which may be one reason why backstage, Campbell, at least, seems both so disorganised and so blase (though I cannot entirely rule out the possibility that he is always like this).

It is mid-afternoon now, and in his dressing room – if he has a rider, it obviously includes Jaffa Cakes, and I will shortly get told off for eating some of them – Campbell is steadying himself for the hours ahead. There is a lot to fit in. First, he and Stewart will record two podcasts: a regular episode, and one in which they answer questions from listeners (both go out every week). Then he will sign a huge pile of copies of his new book, But What Can I Do? (Why Politics Has Gone So Wrong, and How You Can Help to Fix It), for the punters. After this, the two will briefly rehearse tonight’s show on stage. A break for dinner will follow, and then, at last, it will be curtain up. “We’ve got some great clips for the audience tonight,” Campbell tells me, tearing open a bag of crisps. “Have you seen the film of Rory in the floods [in 2015, during his stint as environment minister] when he went to the wrong side of a bridge?” He emits a satisfied laugh. “He made a complete arse of himself. It’s pure The Thick of It.”

Rory Stewart in his Privy Counsellor’s uniform on his way to attend the king’s coronation, accompanied by his wife, Shoshana Clark.
Rory Stewart in his privy counsellor’s uniform on his way to attend the king’s coronation, accompanied by his wife, Shoshana Clark. Photograph: Twitter / Rory Stewart @RoryStewartUK

What kind of people make up the audience at these live events? He gives me a look. “Fiona [Millar, his partner] and Grace [his daughter] thought it was completely mad at the Albert Hall,” he says. In what way mad? “The fans. They heard some of them asking each other what words they most like to hear us say, and stuff like that.” Since The Rest Is Politics (AKA TRIP) began, Campbell’s face has, he goes on, become an awful lot more recognisable. When he and Millar walk their dog in London, they’re constantly stopped by (mostly, it would seem) women. So will it be a bit like seeing Tom Jones in Las Vegas tonight? Should I expect underwear to be chucked at the stage? I’m teasing but, alas, Campbell seems not to notice. “It is a bit like that, actually,” he says, licking salt off his fingers.

Every couple has an origin story, and I would like to hear his and Stewart’s. How did their bromance start? Were they friends before TRIP? Are they, come to that, friends now? “You know what?” he says. “It’s really weird. This is only the, what… sixth time we’ve been face to face in real life. Rory lives in Amman [in Jordan, where his wife, Shoshana, works as the CEO of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, the NGO founded by Stewart, the then Prince of Wales, and Hamid Karzai], so we record online usually. We’re never in the same place, you see.”

But no, they weren’t friends. The podcast is made by Goalhanger, a company co-founded by the ex-footballer and Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker. “I knew Tony [Pastor, also co-founder of Goalhanger, and the executive producer of TRIP] because he, like me, is a Burnley fan. I’ve known him for years. Anyway, they started this podcast, The Rest Is History [with Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook]. Big triumph. Tony came to see me in the Westminster Pret. He said: ‘This podcast thing is huge. It’s just two guys talking, but it is huge. So we should do one called The Rest Is Politics – you and a Tory.’ Their idea [for the Tory] was Dominic Cummings [Boris Johnson’s controversial former chief adviser]. Disaster. Not going to happen. So I went on social media and asked people: if I did a podcast with a Tory, who should it be? A good quarter said Rory. Other nominees were Ken Clarke, William Hague, Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve, but he was way ahead.”

What happened next? “I didn’t know Rory. The only time I’d ever had a proper conversation with him was in Steve Kinnock’s garden [Kinnock, the Labour MP for Aberavon, knows Stewart from Brussels, apparently]. But I phoned him. ‘That sounds interesting,’ he said. ‘The problem is, I live in Jordan.’ But Tony said it wasn’t a problem, and we started the next week.” What did he and Stewart want from it? Did they expect it to be a hit? “No. We both went into it not knowing if it would last. I think Rory saw it as a platform. He likes having a platform to display what he knows. But the thing I enjoy is talking about stuff you don’t normally talk about.” Today, they will be chatting, among other things, about the recent election in Thailand, where a social democratic party has triumphed, a story Campbell is determined the western media has ignored. Does he ever hesitate to discuss a subject on the grounds that he doesn’t know enough about it? “No, never,” he says.

Campbell with Tony Blair in 2001, when he was Blair’s director of communications.
Campbell with Tony Blair in 2001, when he was Blair’s director of communications. Photograph: Ben Curtis/PA Archive/Press Association Ima

Campbell and Stewart are quite different people, and they bring radically different kinds of knowledge and experience to the podcast. Campbell began his career as a reporter at the Mirror, leaving journalism to become Blair’s press secretary shortly before the 1997 election. From 2000-03, he was the Downing Street director of communications and strategy; he also worked for Labour in various guises during the election campaigns of 2005, 2010 and 2015. Yes, he has since written many books, including novels and a volume about mental health (he suffers from depression). But it is his political diaries that take up most space – several metres, at this point – on the nation’s bookshelves.

He is, looked at one way, extremely parochial, obsessed with – passionate about, if you prefer – the Labour party to a degree that can be unnerving even to other devoted members (this, he tells me, easily survived his expulsion from the party in 2019 for voting Liberal Democrat in the European elections on the grounds of their support for a second Brexit referendum). Outside it, football is his principal other interest (though he makes time for park runs and cold water swimming). He’s also a bruiser: tribal, pugnacious, overly confident, and apt to lose his temper – as he did in the middle of a discussion about Brexit on the BBC’s Newsnight only the other evening.

Somehow, everything is on the outside with Campbell, even as he looks ever inwards, a state of affairs that only makes Rory Stewart’s John Buchan-esque international-man-of-mystery persona seem the more exotic. Stewart is posh, highly controlled, stoical and to a degree unemotional, but his gaze is firmly outwards, his interest in the world intense and wide-ranging. An Old Etonian who once tutored Princes William and Harry, he was in the Black Watch before he went up to Oxford, and joined the Foreign Office after he came down. In 2000, he took a period of leave to walk across Asia, the Afghanistan leg of which he later described in his acclaimed book The Places in Between. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he ran two of the country’s provinces on behalf of the transitional government, overseeing elections and resolving tribal differences. In 2005, he set up the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul. All this – and a great deal more I haven’t room to describe here – before he was even returned as the Tory MP for Penrith and the Border in 2010. (In 2019, having held ministerial roles and stood for the Conservative party leadership, he lost the whip following a rebellion over a no-deal Brexit; soon afterwards, he announced he would be standing down as an MP at the next election.)

Rory Stewart trekked across Afghanistan in 2001 for his book The Places In Between
Rory Stewart trekked across Afghanistan in 2001 for his book The Places in Between. Photograph: LA Times/Getty Images

What unites them? For the first months of the podcast, they bonded over their intense dislike of Brexit and, especially, of Boris Johnson. But what about now? Is it, as I suspect, something quite old-fashioned that they share? Campbell nods. “I think we’ve both got quite a romantic view of what politics can be. When we started, we both loathed what Johnson stands for, and what he has done. I got the feeling that Rory was no longer a Tory he loathed him so much. But I’ve noticed that since Boris went, he’s gone back a bit. He might vote Lib Dem, but he’ll find it hard to go the whole way.”

Earlier, Campbell told me that in a forthcoming podcast in which they interview Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff, Stewart can be heard losing his temper over Iraq (he has come to believe the invasion was a catastrophic error). “I could see his body start to shake,” he said. So why isn’t the matter a problem between Campbell and Stewart? (Campbell was involved in the preparation of the Iraq dossier, the briefing document that was ultimately used to justify Britain’s participation in the war.) “Well, we did two hours on it on the podcast for the 20th anniversary. We did it in real depth, and he managed to keep his cool then. But he does still mention it, yes.”

Campbell likes Stewart’s clarity, the fact that (surprise) he doesn’t interrupt, and, I surmise (because he doesn’t precisely articulate this), his kindness, which manifests itself in the form of gentle, diligent good manners. “I’ve only ever done the podcast once when I was clinically depressed,” says Campbell. “I felt so bad, I said so, and we ended up doing half of it about mental health and politics. He’s very good like that. He’s not naturally empathetic in a way I can be – Rory can be quite reserved – but he’s emotionally intelligent when it comes to stuff like that. I sometimes go a bit far in needling him, but most of the time, he’s fine with it. I mean, we both have irritating mannerisms. Sometimes, he won’t engage. He’s got this habit where he says, ‘Hmm, very good’ [he makes his voice clipped and patrician], and then he moves on.” Later, I will hear Stewart do exactly this, and each time he does, it is a bit like being in a John le Carré novel. The shrewd diplomat, faced with a potential tyrant, knows precisely how to handle him, his artful segue carefully and disarmingly cast as praise.

They record their podcasts in Stewart’s dressing room, surrounded by posters advertising the performances of their predecessors: Elaine Paige, Chris Bonnington, Stu Francis (who used to present Crackerjack). It’s in the basement, and its walls are painted green; the feeling is of being in a changing room at a municipal swimming pool. They talk, first, about Starmer’s latest speech. Neither of them was wholly convinced by it; more policies are needed. Then they discuss the National Conservatism Conference, an event attended by Tory rightwingers (“horrifying”, says Stewart). From here they move on to Thailand, Stewart dazzling everyone with his knowledge of the antics of King Vajiralongkorn and his dog, Air Chief Marshal Fufu, and finally to Syria, which has recently returned to the Arab League. They sound just as they do on air; the show is barely cut or tweaked at all. What strikes me most, however, is how often they tend to agree. Here, in human form, is that elusive, half-forgotten thing: the centre ground.

After this, everyone begins dashing about. When do they I eat, I think, beginning to feel faint. When do they sleep? Stewart has flown in from Amman this morning – tomorrow, he’ll leave for Japan – and for all that his back is the straightest I’ve ever seen, there’s something frail about him: I sense him battling weariness. When we finally sit down to speak – we snatch 10 minutes together in a corridor where Royal Hall stewards are being briefed about their evening’s duties – I have a strong urge to ask for a blanket, to wrap it around his knees. But once we’re talking, he rallies, of course. He’s funny and charming. “He wasn’t my type at all,” he says, with mock coyness, of his latest bedfellow. “It wasn’t supposed to be serious.”

The Rest Is Politics isn’t some kind of substitute, he tells me. He really doesn’t miss Westminster. “I hated it, yes. I feel it [politics] is incredibly important. I wish I were tough enough and had enough energy to somehow find a way back into it, and to be able to do it in a way I could survive. But I basically felt it was unbearable. There were colleagues who loved it – George Osborne loved the game of it – but I just felt continual disappointment.” Something happens to those who are elected, he says. “It’s not necessarily to do with the kind of people who become MPs. It may just be a consequence of the structure of parliament and what it does to them. But by the time they’ve been there 10 years, they’re not fully rounded human beings any more. They are so short-tactical. The idea that people are serious about policy! The thinking in both parties is incredibly narrow-minded. It’s very, very bad for you.” The podcast’s principal allure for him, then, is that it is without limits: “It’s an opportunity for me to talk boringly about things like GDP per capita, and I love that.”

But there are other things, too. For instance, as previously discussed, Boris. “Yes! His loss was a real threat to the podcast. We had an amazing nine months of being fantastically rude about Boris. Then Liz Truss came along. There was a moment after she left when I thought: who’s going to listen to this any more? Our audience is here to be angry about Boris and Truss, and Rishi Sunak is just not as awful.” What about Campbell? Has he come to like him? (I know: it’s as if I’m Derek Batey, and this is Mr and Mrs.) He grins. “The accusation my friends make is that he’s grooming me to join Labour.” This, he says, will never happen.

Doesn’t he find Campbell’s tribalism annoying, though? Again, he smiles. “I do like him. I’ve become very fond of him. I sort of trust him. I think he’s reliable. He’s very cheeky and naughty and gossipy, if you don’t put him under a D-notice. But if you say, ‘Don’t repeat this’, he’s trustworthy and loyal.” So they’ll keep at it? For how long? “That’s a good question. I don’t know. But I do enjoy it.”

Onstage at the Royal Hall, Harrogate, Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewartview a clip from Newsnight when Campbell lost his temper with Alex Phillips, the former Brexit Party MEP
Onstage at the Royal Hall, Harrogate, Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart view a clip from Newsnight when Campbell lost his temper with Alex Phillips, the former Brexit party MEP. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

At this point, someone arrives to whisk him away. Showtime approaches, and I duly take my seat in the Royal Hall. I look around. The audience is so mixed: here are entire families, politics A-level students in tow, and here are also thirtysomething couples, in corduroy and trainers. I do see a few groups of women, drinks in hand, but they are, perhaps, less excitable than billed. When the curtain rises – Campbell sits beneath a red spotlight, and Stewart beneath a blue – they begin by asking the crowd where they’ve travelled from. A show of hands reveals that more than half the audience is from outside Harrogate. One couple has come from south Wales, and another group from the Channel Islands.

What follows is, in essence, a reprise of what I heard earlier, with the addition of a few knobs and whistles. The audience claps and cheers when Stewart describes how he once refused to be bullied by George Osborne, and laughs uproariously at footage of him determinedly explaining that, no, a flood defence had not been breached; the water had simply come over it. Campbell talks everyone through his Burnley ties, which are, after all, a great deal more sensible than the Privy Counsellor’s uniform Stewart wore to the coronation; there is also some peculiar sporran talk (both men own more than one). Campbell then plays, by way of a finale, a lament he has composed for the lost of Northern Ireland on his bagpipes, a tune he transmogrifies into Happy Birthday in honour of someone in the balcony.

And then it’s over at last, and we all trail out into the cool of the night. Does the crowd seem happy? Did The Rest Is Politics Live meet their expectations? My analysis is that yes, they do, and yes, it did. “Oh, it was very enjoyable, wasn’t it?” I hear a woman say to her friend, in a voice I would describe, as a Yorkshire person myself, as exuding a full sense of value for money. And I find that I feel quite happy, too, for all that I’ve had no supper. People are said to be sick and tired of politics. We’re told they’re disengaged and dangerously cynical. But perhaps the success of Campbell and Stewart’s podcast tells a different story. It is politicians and their behaviour that appal us. The dissemination of important, interesting information is another matter altogether. Ideas: some of us crave those still.

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