Star of the small screen. Image via Instagram

Alastair Campbell’s Instagram feed—the first reviews are in

Tony Blair’s spin doctor once ruled the Westminster Lobby by fear. Now he’s on Instagram broadcasting random thoughts from Hampstead Heath. So what should we make of the “authentic” new face?
December 9, 2021

“Does God exist?” Alastair Campbell is looking through questions people have sent him. In the old days he would have refused to do God, but then in the old days, he wouldn’t have been on Instagram.

In past times, to ask Campbell a question you had to be one of the exclusive group of journalists allowed to squeeze into a room in Downing Street, where he’d insult you. He could do that because, as the BBC’s Blair & Brown documentary has just reminded us, in the old days he was one of the most powerful people in the country.

But that was several wars, a couple of referendums and four prime ministers ago. Now Campbell is on Instagram, broadcasting live stream-of-consciousness videos as he potters about, or works out on his exercise bike, or waits to do a TV interview. Ask him something and there’s a good chance he’ll answer. For those who remember his pomp, it’s like stumbling across Paul McCartney playing a hotel piano, doing requests for tips.

This is Campbell Unplugged, pouring forth the things that are on his mind. His face wobbles in and out of shot as he holds his phone. Campbell’s partner Fiona Millar is a frequent presence, though like Maris Crane or Mrs Columbo or Godot, she remains just out of shot.

“Fiona doesn’t agree,” Campbell says at one point. “She just thinks I should shut up.” He looks at the comments coming in on his phone. “No, Fiona, no, they’re all saying ‘no he shouldn’t shut up.’” Is this what people meant when they talked about government by focus group?

His main theme is the awfulness of the Conservatives. “It’s ridiculous that Johnson’s the prime minister,” he says. “Liz Truss would be a very effective receptionist in a budget hotel. She’d give you the wrong key and tell you no, it’s the right key.”

It is compelling, up to a point. Around the 20th minute of a recent walk round Hampstead, we’d got the idea. There was another 20 minutes to go. I’ve sat through shorter Keir Starmer speeches.

It’s not just invective. Campbell talks a lot about a new website, “Just Ask A Question”——where he and others give answers about mental health. There he is warm and honest about his own depression. His discussion of his suicidal thoughts, in particular, is very moving. 

Much of that warmth comes through on Instagram, too. There is a little community of viewers, whom Campbell knows by their handles and greets with an enthusiasm he never managed for Andrew Marr. When one is having surgery, Campbell plays him a tune on an electronic bagpipe to cheer him up. He offers to take requests before launching into “Ode to Joy,” singing over the top: “Brexit’s a load of shit, it is going badly wrong.” Someone watching with his daughter complains about the language, and Campbell apologises. An image floats into the mind of Malcolm Tucker doing the CBeebies bedtime story: “This is a tale of a tiny snail and a fuck-off huge, grey-blue humpback whale.”

His daughter Grace, a comedian, pops up. “How different is what you’re saying today to what you were saying yesterday?” she asks, every inch the bored twentysomething.

“Not that different,” Campbell admits. “It’s called consistency of messaging.” It’s a flashback to the days of the New Labour grid system, when everyone had a script and they stuck to it or they were out. In the old days, that was what you had to do to win. Now winners are people like Johnson and Nigel Farage, who are “authentic” and “refreshing” because they “speak their minds.”

So Campbell has adapted, and now speaks his mind. A little too much at times. “I am not a conspiracy theorist,” he says, before arguing the government is running down the NHS so as to sell it off. The Campbell of the old days would have called this a conspiracy theory. Or possibly press-released it in a dossier.

Overall, his rambles evoke being cornered by the grump at the end of the bar, if that grump used to run the country. There’s a huge sense of frustration, of someone who was once part of a government that got things done and is now on the sidelines as the country is run by someone he sees as fundamentally unserious.

He’s asked about the Blair & Brown documentary, which he feels focused too much on the fights. “The thing about TB-GB,” Campbell tells us, “is that yes, there were differences, but they were both big people who did big things. These people are…” He trails off for a moment. He’s still big. It’s the politics that got small.