Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart

Q&A: Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart unfiltered

What does the future hold? Experienced political figures Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart joined our Chief Economist Philip Shaw to give their view on the policies and personalities that defined the general election, at an exclusive client Q&A.

 

1. After the dramatic result on 4 July, what do you see as the defining moment of the campaigns?

Rory Stewart: One thing that makes campaigns exciting is that they can tilt very quickly. The classic example in British politics was from 2017. Theresa May went into the campaign with a 20-point lead; she was in the position that Keir Starmer was in at the beginning of this campaign. But over the course of that six-week period, she lost her majority entirely, largely through one catastrophic misstep with her manifesto.

This time, the opposite happened. Starmer came up with a big lead, and he preserved that lead. It had a lot to do with discipline and control on the Labour side, because there are many things that could have screwed it up along the way.

Alastair Campbell: I think the single defining moment for Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party was when he failed to respond to the Privileges Committee report about Boris Johnson. The only chance of victory that he ever had was to show that he was genuinely different to Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. He said the right words: professionalism, accountability, integrity. But he hasn't delivered on that. And he hid, and the last thing you should do when you're a leader is hide.

At the start of the campaign, I cannot understand how anybody who worked for him – or he himself – didn't look out of the window and say, “It’s raining.” So he looked ridiculous from the word go. And adding to it, to my great joy, was Steve Bray – the blue-hatted anti-Brexit protester who lives outside Westminster – at the end of the street, with the loudest sound system you can get, playing Things Can Only Get Better.

The campaign didn’t really improve. But I've got to say, I thought that in the last TV debate Sunak was much more energetic, much more aggressive. He still had a bit of fight in him. But I don’t know how many people were listening.

Rory Stewart: We had him go out in the rain. We had him photographed underneath exit signs and Mickey Mouse ears.

Alastair Campbell: We had D-Day.

Rory Stewart: He did turn up to D-Day – but yes, we had him leave early. We had him do his second launch at the Titanic Quarter in Northern Ireland.

Alastair, when you were in politics, I remember you advising people to move away from a drain when making a statement about a disastrous economic collapse.

Alastair Campbell
Alastair Campbell, Political strategist and former Director of Communications, the Labour Party

Six weeks is a long time for a campaign, and you are going to be saying the same things again and again. But you’ve got to say them like you mean them.

2. What do these incidents tell you about the way the Conservative campaign was run?

Alastair Campbell: Well, the D-Day incident tells me that Rishi Sunak didn’t have an operation. It was a little clique. His chief strategist was his best mate – the best man at his wedding and, until recently, a journalist at The Spectator.

Tony Blair would never have left. And if we thought he would leave, I would have grabbed him and said, “You’re not going.” But let's just say that we said, “No, we're going now”. One of the policemen would have stopped us. One of the secretaries would have stopped us. And that says to me that there's no team culture there. There's probably nobody who has the ability to say, “Excuse me, what are you doing?”.

The other issue Sunak had was with programmed lines. Six weeks is a long time for a campaign, and you are going to be saying the same things again and again. But you've got to say them like you mean them.

With the gambling issue, he kept saying, “I'm absolutely furious.” He didn't look or sound furious. He didn't do anything to suggest he actually was furious. He didn't suspend those involved in the scandal until the focus groups were telling him: “This is bad”.

The economy

3. The UK fell into a short recession at the end of 2023. The economy is now recovering, and inflation is down from 11% to 2%. But, ultimately, this didn’t help the Conservatives in the election. Does the economy still matter to voters?

Alastair Campbell: One of the reasons the Conservatives didn’t get the credit is because they did a reasonably good job clearing up their own mess. But every time Sunak talked about it, he looked like he wanted a big pat on the back for doing his job – whereas he should have been saying, “I feel your pain, and I get it. We didn't do that great a job, but now things are going better”. He should have talked it down a bit rather than talking it up, because there's a gap between reality and people's worries.

Rory Stewart: One thing that the Conservatives liked to boast about is that people on median incomes – around £36,000 a year – are paying about £2,500 less tax than they would have in 2010. You would have thought that would mean people on median and low incomes would be feeling better off, but they're not.

This is partly because the way that we measure inflation is not capturing what's going on in people’s lives. House prices, for example, continue to become completely inaccessible. Younger people feel that they have very little future, and most people feel their children are going to be worse off than themselves. People feel in a very fragile state, and they’re struggling to meet their bills. It's no good telling people that they're better off, with statistics.

4. We’ve got a budget deficit that is likely to remain in excess of £100 billion this year – around 4% of GDP. Overall outstanding debt is over 90% of GDP. How much change will Keir Starmer’s government be able to make?

Rory Stewart: The new government has signed up to £18 billion of spending cuts, which they've endorsed from the last Conservative budget. They’ve said they won’t raise major taxes, and they've also said they will reduce borrowing.

The problem is that public services are groaning and need to improve. Where is the money going to come from? Labour’s answer is growth. But growth is not going to come from industrial strategies or government spending, because they’ve said they won't do that.

So the likelihood is that the new government is going to find itself very short of cash and essentially implement a sort of “mini austerity” package. This is very dangerous, because it means that – even with Labour’s huge majority – in five years’ time the door will be open to lots of crazy populists.

Alastair Campbell: This is difficult. We've said it many, many times on The Rest is Politics: the country is ready for a much more honest approach to some of these issues. But if you’re Keir Starmer, you’re sitting there before the election thinking, “Well, that’s what Neil Kinnock thought. That’s what lots of Labour leaders thought”. Every single Labour leader that has ever gone to into an election saying, “I'm going to put your taxes up” has lost. In Kinnock’s case it was for pensions and Child Benefit; it wasn’t even public services.

So it will be very difficult for Rachel Reeves not to stick to existing fiscal rules. So there will be some pretty tough choices before growth kicks in. The next two years are going to be very, very difficult.

Rory Stewart
Rory Stewart, former Conservative Party MP and Secretary of State for International Development

The way that we measure inflation is not capturing what’s going on in people’s lives… It’s no good telling people that they’re better off, with statistics.

Housing and other priorities

5. Let’s turn to housing. How effective do you think the Labour government will be in improving access to housing?

Alastair Campbell: I think they understand the need for more housebuilding. The other part of the growth agenda that they're trying to emphasise is a focus on planning. Now, lots of governments in the past have talked about reforming planning. But this is the first time I can remember that a party of government has put planning reform centrally in their electoral message. It may well become one of the big things in the King's Speech.

However, the problem with the housing debate more generally is that we're still trapped between two poles. One is still defined by Thatcher – she sold off council houses, and we haven't built enough social housing and affordable housing. And the other is house prices in the southeast. We've got to change that debate. Housing has got to be much more central to the way people live and the sort of communities we live in.

6. Rory, do you think that there should have been more emphasis placed on derestricting planning by previous Conservative governments?

Rory Stewart: I remember coming in with the Conservative government in 2010 when the big idea was supposed to be housebuilding, and a lot of the most ambitious, energetic ministers were put in charge. Michael Gove spent a lot of time on housebuilding. Oliver Letwin, who was very close to David Cameron, spent a lot of time on building. Greg Clark spent a lot of time trying to build houses. And they had the idea that they were going to build 300,000 houses a year. There was immense logic for it in terms of their voter base, in terms of winning over young people, in terms of generating economic growth, but they totally failed.

Why did they fail? Some say they failed because they never got the right relationship with the property companies. Some say that they needed to change the way that land is valued. Others say it's to do with planning.

One of the things that could hit Labour is, of course, that this immediately runs into trouble with people who are concerned about biodiversity and climate. There might be intensive landscaping, there might be newts at risk or air-quality issues – people point out that construction machinery generates a huge amount of carbon, etc. You've got to square all those things away.

7. What are the other main challenges for the new government?

Rory Stewart: Planning reform is central to growth, alongside working out how you reform public services. We now spend four times more, in real terms, on the NHS than we did in 1979. It's costing four out of every ten pounds of our current spending, and it's going up to five. So, will they have the courage, the cunning, to really drive through change in the NHS?

What is Labour going to do to harness the productivity benefits of artificial intelligence? Are they going to deregulate? What kind of constraints are they going to put around it?

A much closer relationship with Europe could be very helpful. Symbolically, rejoining something like the European Union Customs Union would be a real gamechanger in signalling a different direction of British economic and security policy.

8. What do you think the UK’s relationship with the European Union might look like under the new government?

Alastair Campbell: If you think about the issues that are not central to this debate that should be, one is definitely the consequences of Brexit.

Normally in the democratic process, when you get to the next election after you've been elected, if you've done what you said you would do in the previous election, you don't stop shouting about it. What was the Conservative Party slogan in 2019? Get Brexit Done. They got Brexit done, and then they didn’t want to talk about it. Why? Because they knew most people thought it an absolute disaster.

Even weirder than that, Labour didn’t wanted to talk about it either. Why? In my view, it’s because they were not following the mantra of the great Canadian ice-hockey player Wayne Gretzky: you skate to where the puck is heading, not to where it's been. And the debate on Brexit is stuck where the puck was in 2016.

During the election, Rishi Sunak thought there was an advantage to him saying that Keir Starmer wanted to take us back into the European Union. I know Keir Starmer very, very well and I wish to God it was true, and it is not. Keir Starmer, meanwhile, is talking about getting a better deal.

I speak to a lot of people in the European Union, and they will broadly welcome the Labour government. I think the route to a better deal is defence and security: where they still really feel Britain matters.

For most people, it’s going to kick off when these biometric scanners come in. And every time you go through a European border, you’ve got to get out of your car or your lorry and do your fingerprints. It's going to be chaos and disorder.

  

Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart
Alastair Campbell, Political strategist and former Director of Communications, the Labour Party

What I think is going to happen on the right of the Conservative party is that they’re going to make the same mistake as the Labour Party did in 2010. Labour veered off to the left, and the Tories will veer off to the right.

   

Populism and party evolutions

9. Do you think the success of Reform UK will now have more of an influence on the Conservative Party?

Rory Stewart: The importance of the Labour government delivering is central. Labour is now the party of the moderate, progressive centre ground in British politics. They are socially liberal, fiscally conservative. Their performance is part of the battle against populism across the world. If you look at the G7 leaders, there are many other people who broadly come from Keir Starmer stock – socially liberal, fiscally conservative. Olaf Scholz in Germany; Emmanuel Macron in France; in some sense the Japanese PM Fumio Kishida; Joe Biden; Justin Trudeau in Canada. And their net popularity ratings are catastrophic. The Japanese PM is on about -45, Macron is about -32, Trudeau is about -37 and Scholz is about -52. And that has created huge space for populists.

Alastair Campbell: What I think is going to happen on the right of the Conservative Party is that they're going to make the same mistake as the Labour Party did in 2010. Labour veered off to the left, and the Tories will veer off to the right. This media landscape makes it easy for the hard right. It’s happened in in America, it's happening in parts of Europe, and it's now happening here.

I really worry about what populism is doing to our politics. Nigel Farage is a very effective oppositional campaigner and communicator. He doesn't have any compunction about lying, and he even admits that. When he launched his manifesto, people said, “Well, these numbers don't add up.” He said, “Yeah, I know they don't. I’m going to be in the government, and this is what we do.” And people laugh, and that's how it works. The media treats populists as though they’re just entertainers.

With Farage, the Tories took the wrong approach. They had this line on Farage, “Vote for Farage, you get Starmer”. They should have attacked Farage on who and what he is, and what he stands for. They didn’t tackle populism and the dangers of it.

Rory Stewart: I agree with Alastair. The technique that Rishi Sunak used against Labour was to keep saying to Starmer, “I know what I'm going to do; what are you going to do?”. That’s what he should have asked Farage. “What are your policies? What are you going to do?” Against that, Farage would have been in real trouble.

Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell
Rory Stewart, former Conservative Party MP and Secretary of State for International Development

The structures that surround the way our electoral system works – the way the parties operate, the way the whips operate, the way the media operates, the way that we as voters respond to them – make leaders much less effective.

What it takes to be a leader

10. Do you think there is a lack of talented leaders in politics? And how can we change that?

Alastair Campbell: You start with education. I was in a school the other day with some first-time voters, and they were so excited about voting. They care about stuff. But when you really drill down into the political process, some people think that the King actually runs the country – they see the King doing the King's speech and presenting the bills, and nobody has explained how it works to them.

One of the reasons our podcast is successful is because we've got his motto, “disagree agreeably,” which is how most people live their lives. And yet we keep telling each other that politics is bad and that we shouldn't do politics. If that's the case, we can’t be surprised when we end up with Johnson and Trump.

Rory Stewart: It's also important to understand that it isn't necessarily about the individuals. Rishi Sunak is a competent, bright, diligent, serious person with an extraordinary CV. It's not that these people are incompetent, idle idiots. It's that the structures around our electoral system – the way the parties operate, the way the whips operate, the way the media operates, the way that we as voters respond to them – make them much less effective than they could be.

Alastair Campbell: I think Keir Starmer could be exceptional. At every stage of his life he has been underestimated, faced difficulties and always overachieved. And he's got a ruthless streak to him. He's going to need a lot of ruthlessness to get stuff done.

The trouble with party politics is that it’s often a product of compromise. Often the leaders who project set themselves up for all the fissures that start to tear things apart. So people are more reluctant to project themselves. But that’s the kind of leadership that we need.

11. Do you think politicians still have a long-term vision for the future?

Rory Stewart: Spotting where the puck is going is what great political leadership is all about. The future is very uncertain, and there’s a huge amount of risk.

What made Margaret Thatcher astonishing was her own big bet: deregulation, privatisation and globalisation were completely against the conventional orthodoxy in the 1970s. She comes in and she has 400 economists sending letters to The Times saying, “This woman is demented. This is going to destroy the British economy”. And she pulls it off. That's the challenge for Starmer: can he spot those moments?

Alastair Campbell: In my experience with Tony Blair, we had loads of people saying, “Why are you making Northern Ireland such a big deal?” And it was because he sensed there was a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Is that Starmer’s style of leadership? On the big picture, he’s shown that he can change the Labour Party. In terms of policy management thus far, he's been much more of a technocrat. The dropped pledge of £28 billion per year for green investment is a very interesting example of that.

Alastair Campbell and Philip Shaw
Alastair Campbell, Political strategist and former Director of Communications, the Labour Party

I think Keir Starmer could be exceptional. At every stage of his life he has been underestimated, faced difficulties and always overachieved.

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