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By Emma-Louise Boynton
Do you ever hug trees?” Alastair Campbell says to me, dressed in a blue anorak and sturdy walking boots, smiling yet serious.
Er, no… I can’t say that I do.
“You’ve never hugged a tree?! OK, c’mon... put your bag down.”
We’re in the middle of Hampstead Heath and the man who is widely recognised as the template for The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker – a character who I’m pretty certain would scream all kinds of expletives at anyone who asked him to hug a tree – is pointing to a large oak standing before us, gesturing for me to go over and wrap my arms around its massive trunk.
“Right around it. OK, now close your eyes…”
And so I find myself, eyes tight shut, hugging one of Hampstead Heath’s finest old oaks as Alastair Campbell, Director of Communications for Tony Blair from 2000 to 2003, watches on, ordering me to “Stay! You have to stay… you will start to feel it!”.
After what seems like an appropriate length of tree-hugging time, I let go and make my way through the mud to retrieve my things and continue our walk. My next question seems obvious.
Do you hug trees a lot?
“Nah,” he replies, “especially not in smart coats.” He laughs at my now bark-encrusted suede jacket.
Campbell knows this area well. He and his partner Fiona Millar (a journalist and former adviser to Cherie Blair) have lived in Hampstead for more than 28 years with their three children – Grace, Calum and Rory – and take to the Heath virtually every day, beginning with a freezing cold dip in Parliament Hill Lido. “I normally do two minutes per degree,” he tells me proudly. “Today it was 9 degrees and I did 24!”
Exercise and the open air help Campbell to maintain his equilibrium. Since returning to his first career, journalism, in 2014, he’s become a prominent campaigner for mental health. His own personal struggles were the subject of his last book, Living Better: How I Learned to Survive Depression, and politicians have been turning to him to discuss how they’re coping during the pandemic. “I did interviews during lockdown, including with Nicola Sturgeon, who talked about how she was finding it really, really hard. Sadiq Khan said the same. He’s been in touch a couple of times, saying he’s been struggling a bit.”
Campbell himself, while extraordinarily productive in the last year – “one day I actually wrote 22 articles for 22 countries” – has continued with his own battles. He talks of experiencing “manic” periods in the first lockdown, during which what he describes as “demonic energy” flowed through him, only to be followed by a crash that instantaneously drained him of his otherwise limitless reserves. “You have this amazing energy,” he says. “You feel like you’re on top of everything… when the crash comes, that’s when you feel shit, because you realise: ‘I’m not on top of anything.’
“I get this conflict running in me all the time,” he continues. “Part of me thinks: ‘I can change the world!’ The other part of me thinks: ‘You’re wasting your time, why do you even try?’ Both of those things are true, depending on how I feel.”
I ask if working in the high-stress environment of politics for nearly ten years exacerbated his mental health issues.
“It must have… people think I’ve been out talking about mental health forever, but I haven’t. Most of the time I was there, I just got on with it. That probably made it worse. The crash point for me tended to be when I stopped. That was when it got bad.”
‘I don’t actually think Boris Johnson has empathy. He’s a campaigner, and he doesn’t like government because it’s hard work’
Campbell is no longer at the heart of Westminster, but his will to exert his influence is unwavering. A staunch Europhile, he was a prominent campaigner for Remain, and then for the People’s Vote (the campaign which called for a second referendum on the UK’s decision to leave the EU), and also serves as editor-at-large for the weekly pro-EU newspaper The New European. Does he feel greater satisfaction in the work he’s doing outside of politics?
“I get really frustrated at the feeling that there really isn’t much you can do outside. People can say you changed the debate on Brexit, on mental health. Yeah, maybe. But where is it really gonna go? I don’t know.”
Can true change only really be exerted from within the halls of Westminster, then?
“It’s not all about politics,” Campbell replies. “Except ultimately it is all about politics. Look at what’s going on now…”
We’re standing on top of Parliament Hill, and Campbell gestures towards the throngs of early-afternoon strollers unknowingly making their way past many a Tree of the Day (as recognised in Campbell's popular tweet series).
“Lockdown,” he says. “Normally, on an afternoon like this you’d see half a dozen people, maybe a few more. Everyone is wearing a mask because they’ve been told to. Everyone who is on furlough, it’s because the government said they could do that.”
Campbell was expelled from the Labour party under its former leader Jeremy Corbyn, after admitting he’d voted for the Liberal Democrats in the 2019 European parliament elections. Would he still advise someone looking to get involved in politics to join the party that kicked him out after so many years fighting on its behalf?
“Yes. I would. I still feel fundamentally Labour,” he replies, before asking: "How old are you?” I tell him I was born in 1992. “So you were five when we first won, and you were 17 when we lost power... so you’ve not voted in an election in which Labour have won. That’s so depressing,” he says, sounding, for the first time, truly despondent. “But what’s the alternative? Labour has to get back!
“If Johnson survives four years and wins another election,” he continues, “I think that is really, really bad for the country. What Putin and then Trump and now Johnson have shown is that if you build a sufficiently loyal, blind level of support, you can persuade [people] that black is white, and truth… disappears.”
‘With this government there is a very high threshold to be reached before resignation comes into play. Lying, corruption, total incompetence…’
Campbell is deeply critical of the Prime Minister. “I don’t actually think he has empathy,” he says, adding that he believes that, for Boris Johnson, politics is just a game. “He’s a campaigner, and he doesn’t like government because it’s hard work.” What does he think of the current political class generally? “I see lack of empathy. I see lack of competence. I see a lot of lying.”
“I wonder,” he continues, “if the Covid thing wasn’t happening, whether there wouldn’t be pretty massive protests going on. What’s quite depressing is the number of people who think: ‘Well, it is what it is.’”
The government’s response to the pandemic has, according to Campbell, given people all the more reason to be up in arms. While the rollout of the Covid vaccine has been widely lauded as a success – more than 20 million people have now received their first dose of the vaccine, Campbell included – he remains condemnatory of the government’s handling of the crisis.
“It has confirmed my opinion about the disastrous mistakes made early on in favouring a private-sector approach to the challenge of Covid,” he says, “and in thinking the NHS was not up to the job. The vaccine success is above all a success for science and a success for the NHS.”
Of the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, he is equally damning. Following the recent ruling by a high-court judge that Hancock acted unlawfully by handing out multibillion-pound coronavirus contracts without publishing details within 30 days, as required by law, Campbell says he must resign.
“Doubly so, given he said he would do the same thing again. But with this government there is a very high threshold to be reached before resignation comes into play. Lying, corruption, total incompetence – these used to be sufficient cause for resignation,” he continues. “In this government the only resignations have been Cummings and Cain for being rude about Johnson’s girlfriend, and the official in charge of the ministerial code implementation, when it should have been Priti Patel who resigned.” Unsurprisingly, Campbell thinks Keir Starmer would make a “way better” leader than Johnson. “I have no doubt he can do the job. The question is whether he can win… it’s going to be a very hard fight because the last election was such a bad result for Labour… his team has got to be far more high-profile.”
While Campbell remains deeply cynical about the Johnson government and cautiously optimistic about Labour, the committed Europhile has been undeterred in his support for the EU, despite its slow and misstep-ridden vaccine rollout. He dismisses the idea this has been an “advert” for Brexit, as some have suggested.
“Countries were always entitled to have their own approach,” he says, “and Kate Bingham [the chair of the UK vaccine taskforce] is on record as saying she did nothing that she could not have done pre-Brexit. Ultimately, the whole world needs to be vaccinated for us to be safe, so vaccine nationalism is a silly game.”
“As for the article 16 issue,” he continues, referring to the EU’s rapid reversal of its highly controversial decision to trigger a clause in the Brexit Northern Ireland protocol that would have allowed it to impose controls on exports of Covid vaccines to the region, “someone made a stupid mistake on the EU side which was corrected within hours. Sadly, we have not been able to correct the catastrophic error of Brexit.”
We’re nearing the end of our Hampstead Heath walking tour, but I’m eager that we cover one final topic – the media. It was Campbell, the master of media manipulation, after all, who spearheaded New Labour’s strategic embrace of the press, helping to win over traditionally right-wing, Murdoch-owned papers including The Sun – a feat that proved critical to the party’s subsequent electoral victories. So what does the king of spin make of the current role of the media in politics?
‘The word ‘media’ doesn’t mean the same thing anymore,” he continues. “What does it mean? Facebook is the most powerful media organisation in the world. And yet they say they’re just a platform.’
“I don’t think the mainstream media is doing a remotely good enough job of holding this lot to account,” he says. “Those briefings – most of them have been embarrassing. They’re just too close! They worry about losing access and all that sort of stuff.
“There is this myth that [New Labour] had an easy ride with the press, but they tried everything. It just didn’t work, because we were better at what we did than they were. It sounds a bit arrogant, doesn’t it?”
“It does a bit,” I reply.
“The word ‘media’ doesn’t mean the same thing anymore,” he continues. “What does it mean? Facebook is the most powerful media organisation in the world. And yet they say they’re just a platform.”
At this point, we bump into a personal trainer Campbell recognises. “You’ve got to start swimming, mate!” he shouts, as the trainer orders his puffing client to do a final round of squats. Then he joins in in counting her reps. “Six, seven, c’mon, harder! You can’t stop while we’re here watching!”
As we walk off, I ask if he is one of those awfully judgmental cold-water swimmers, mocking anyone who doesn't “do it properly”. “No,” he says, “the ones we look down at are like... the woman this morning who had a big bobble hat. She put her feet in, then got out and went ‘Ughhhh, ughhhhh,’ with her phone on Instagram stories.”
We arrive back at Parliament Hill Lido where our walk began. “My happy place,” Campbell says, peering through the now-shuttered gates at the freezing pool. “Well”, he quickly caveats, “the Burnley ground, and the lido.” (He’s an avid supporter of Burnley FC.) We walk down to the park gates and finally part ways just outside the dog parlour, to which Campbell points, smiling. “And that’s my dog’s happy place.”
Bidding me goodbye, he strolls off, leaving me to marvel at how complete this rebrand from Malcolm Tucker to mental health sage has been. I dust the remaining tree bark off my coat, energised by our conversation. Or maybe there’s just more of the old master of spin left in him than I thought.
Even the canniest of operators can’t always keep depression at bay – but nature, exercise, and undimmed political passion can all help pick you up when you crash.
By Emma-Louise Boynton