How Centrist ‘Frenemies’ Podcasts Turned Politics Into a Parlour Game

'I’m going to disagree disagreeably, if you’re not careful.'

by Juliet Jacques

19 July 2023

two white men sit opposite one another wearing headphones and with microphones stood in front of them, against a background of old books
George Osborne and Ed Balls. Photo: Rob Nicholson/Persephonica

We are living through a centrist Restoration. After a brief flirtation with genuinely different political candidates between 2015 and 2019, the 2024 election will be fought between two knights of the realm and a former investment banker, and will, like in 2010 and 2015, be contested on an ideological terrain the size of a postage stamp. With Nicola Sturgeon standing down before being arrested by Scottish police during an inquest into the SNP’s finances, and Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson being investigated by the EHRC and the police and effectively barred from their parties, the British public will have little choice at the next election but to vote for a party that prioritises the interests of businesses and landlords, supports austerity at home and Atlanticism abroad, keeps tuition fees eye-wateringly high, opposes any legislative improvements to migrant or trans rights, and all but eliminates the right to protest.

While the centre claims to value reasoned argument, this is not how it has recaptured Labour from its left nor the Conservatives from their right. Instead, it’s colluded with the media to discredit and ultimately dislodge its opponents, and then, in Starmer’s case, won the leadership on a vaguely left-leaning platform that was subsequently dropped, purged the membership, demoted or deselected leftwing MPs on spurious charges, and fixed the rulebook so the right was unlikely to ever lose the leadership again. Sunak took advantage of the press turning on Johnson, and then of the Daily Mail’s preferred candidate Liz Truss immediately imploding, winning a hastily organised and heavily orchestrated leadership ‘contest’ in which he ended up being the only candidate.

Everyone who worked for this outcome knows that it has not been achieved democratically but through complicity between media moguls and political factions who will protect their interests, with a mutual understanding that the press will not interrogate Starmer’s McCarthyite authoritarianism. They surely understand, too, that the Thatcherite consensus is unlikely to satisfy a population dealing with skyrocketing rents, spiralling living costs, a healthcare system ruined by underinvestment and public services ravaged by austerity. So, the effort to manufacture consent for the restored status quo must be made on all fronts – including new ones, such as podcasting.

This project became more widely noticed – and derided – when George Osborne and Ed Balls, respectively chancellor and shadow chancellor during the coalition era, announced they intended to launch a podcast about economics. “Ed and I are frenemies,” Osborne said. “Once bitter foes, and now firm friends.” When exactly they became friends is unclear, but it was likely before the 2019 election: if you wanted a single image of the centrist Restoration to come, you couldn’t do better than that of Balls and Osborne sat together in the ITV studio, glaring at Momentum co-founder Jon Lansman while he was admonished by former New Labour minister Alan Johnson. Osborne and Balls, both of whom accepted the need for austerity, will apparently provide “accessible and compelling” analysis of why the British economy is the shitshow it is today. Nothing to do with either of them, I’m sure.

It might be unfair to suggest, when their podcast doesn’t even have a title yet, that the pair will not seriously interrogate the role of New Labour’s deregulatory policies in the financial crisis of 2008, still less how the coalition’s austerity programme exploited it to transfer huge sums to the wealthy and destroy the UK’s social fabric. The widespread expectation, from Novara Media to The Guardian and the London Review of Books to UnHerd, however, is that they won’t. All these responses, from across the political spectrum, speculate that the podcast’s purpose will be to create the illusion of disagreement in the wake of the Labour left’s defeat and the Conservative right’s unceremonious ejection, whilst narrowing the range of acceptable discussion back to the limits Osborne and Balls sought to impose in 2010. To them, politics is not a matter of life and death due to fundamentally opposed class interests, but a dinner table disagreement on which we are graciously allowed to eavesdrop.

Using light entertainment to rehabilitate oneself is a curiously New Labour phenomenon. Alan Johnson appeared on The Masked Singer, while Balls opted for Strictly Come Dancing and a charity episode of The Great British Bake-Off alongside David Cameron’s wife, Samantha. Campbell wrote columns about sport; followed in Johnson’s footsteps by hosting Have I Got News for You; and appeared on TV programmes with Jamie Oliver. That might have warmed the public to them, or at least given them something else to talk about besides austerity, authoritarianism and Iraq. The next step was to rehabilitate their actual politics, a difficult task when new centrist parties were instantly crashing and burning. But with Boris broken by the media’s pursuit of partygate and Starmer purging the Labour left, the victors can dictate the terms of peace – and on what better medium to do so than the podcast?

More suited to pally conversation than the confrontation of Question Time or Twitter, and apparently democratic due to the relative ease with which people could record and share them, podcasts have long offered centrists a way to rehabilitate their brand of dull, technocratic post-politics. During their period of ‘political homelessness’, the Labour right, Liberal Democrats and wet Tories came together around Brexit, which they saw as a mad, populist rejection of sensible governance for which the left and right were supposedly equally responsible (David Graeber once wrote that Brexit animated the two worst tendencies in British politics – elitist technocrats and xenophobic nationalists – bringing out the worst in both and thus choking out the anti-austerity movement). Ian Dunt and Dorian Lynskey’s Remainiacs podcast represented this constituency most successfully, with the two left liberals joined by a Conservative, former business editor at The Economist Peter Collins. As the Corbynite Reel Politik podcast has pointed out, the Remainiacs were relentless in portraying themselves as “the sane left”, warning against “putting a lunatic [Jeremy Corbyn] in No 10”. Soon after, incidentally, Reel Politik was judged to have been uncivil to Yvette Cooper and others on Twitter and as a result, its hosts were doxxed by the Daily Mail.

Yet it was Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell, confector of the “dodgy dossier” that helped precipitate the invasion of Iraq, a man so notorious for his bullying that Armando Iannucci based four series and a film on it, who realised the full potential of the political podcast. Having only semi-successfully rehabilitated himself by talking about his struggles with depression – which solicited little sympathy after people considered how many dead Iraqis might be eating at his conscience – Campbell turned first to light entertainment and then to podcasting. But with Starmer – a former frontman for Campbell’s dubiously-funded People’s Vote campaign – apparently accepting the referendum result, centrists have stopped pretending that Brexit was their primary concern. Rather than unifying around its opposition, they are now making podcasts trying to “[make] sense of our political hell” – as Dunt and Lynskey’s Oh God, What Now? puts it – and, more covertly, presenting their petty disagreements as meaningful differences in an attempt to restore their own political hegemony.

When Goalhanger, a podcasting company co-founded by Gary Lineker, first approached Campbell about the possibility of a politics podcast, the company’s producer suggested Campbell co-host with Dominic Cummings. Campbell refused, insisting on a sensible Tory like Ken Clarke or Anna Soubry. Eventually, they settled on the Old Etonian, Iraq administrator, failed Tory mayor and leadership candidate and possible MI6 agent Rory Stewart. The resultant podcast, The Rest is Politics, is unarguably popular. It has been downloaded more than 60 million times, with live shows selling out at the London Palladium, the Royal Albert Hall, Blackpool Winter Gardens and elsewhere. The podcast is especially well-loved among a segment of the liberal centre that badly craves the return of sane politician: “Here, in human form, is that elusive, half-forgotten thing: the centre ground,” wrote Rachel Cooke of the podcast in The Observer. What constitutes the “centre ground” is not defined, beyond Campbell saying he had “a romantic view of what politics can be” and that Stewart “might vote Lib Dem” at some point.

I listened to an episode of The Rest Is Politics from June 2022. After congratulating themselves on their art of “disagreeing agreeably”, the hosts get into a polite conversation about austerity, an issue raised by a listener. Campbell asks Stewart, who became an MP in 2010, about the coalition’s cuts, which he described as “political choices aimed at the poorest”. Campbell cites Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman saying Labour internalised austerity logic, though fails to mention how he himself reacted when Labour elected a leader on an anti-austerity platform. Luckily, the minimal tension dissipates when Stewart says the coalition should have cut across the board, as then-Labour chancellor Alistair Darling said in 2010 should be done, rather than ringfencing international development or the NHS, adding that he discussed this with Bill Gates.

They then turn to Starmer’s apparent unwillingness to “shape a vision for the future” or even seriously attack Johnson, without any consideration of how the media or New Labour grandees responded to Corbyn’s policy platform. Stewart says Starmer could have remained “true to what he was” – presumably the ten pledges of his 2020 leadership campaign, subsequently dropped – but this isn’t interrogated much further. As ever with such people, it’s only when they get onto Brexit that the conversation finally gets anything close to heated.

Prefacing the discussion, Stewart issues a trigger warning: “Alastair and I are about to get into an old-fashioned, tetchy argument. But don’t worry, we make it up in the end.” Campbell warns Stewart: “I’m going to disagree disagreeably, if you’re not careful,” a potent threat given what happened to the last person who did that.

It quickly turns out they’re not really disagreeing so much as talking at cross-purposes, and once they establish that they don’t have any significant differences, they agree that “we’ve got to a more agreeable position” and that they “love having arguments”. To Campbell and Stewart, politics is a game they learned at their school debating societies, and now enjoy playing over dinner or a hot mic.

The restoration of this chummy status quo could be predicted between the 2017 and 2019 elections, when Britain’s liberal centre put a premium on friendly disagreement. This insufferably smug Observer article about “cross-party pals” from the Labour right and Tory left, who set aside their clearly surmountable ideological differences to be mates, summed up this tendency perfectly: an attempt to present themselves as reasonable and fair, in contrast to anyone who suggested the architects of austerity might be disliked for their actions, let alone held accountable for them. Those people, it was implied, should let the “grown-ups” get on with governing.

The function of their addition to the political-media complex, along with features such as the Prospect magazine ‘debate’ or The Observer’s ‘dining across the divide‘, is to narrow the range of subjects acceptable within a narrow centre-right Overton window, and the tone with which they can be discussed, appointing themselves arbiters of both.

Balls and Osborne’s promised podcast will doubtless form part of the same project, and will doubtless have a similar appeal to liberals who think everything was basically fine before Brexit, Boris and Corbyn. But no matter how many podcasts these people make, the conditions that led the public to refuse the centrist status quo the first time around will only worsen under Sunak or Starmer, whichever of the two suits wins.

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic.

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