In defence of Political Currency
Not all podcasts by middle-aged politicians are the same
When George Osborne announced that he was starting a podcast with his “frenemy” Ed Balls, he was met with exasperation and derision. One scurrilous email and a gate-crashed wedding later, we can at last behold the fruit of their labours. Across the political spectrum, the reaction to the podcast has been discouraging. In the New Statesman, Rachel Cunliffe complains about the hosts’ “banal centrism”; in the Spectator, Niall Gooch laments the “rise and rise of the centrist bore podcast”; and in UnHerd, Nicholas Harris mocks the decision to call the podcast Political Currency: “Why name a podcast after a resource of which these men are utterly spent?”
Every article about Political Currency has reached for the obvious parallel, Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell’s enormously successful The Rest Is Politics. I have made no secret of how much I dislike The Rest Is Politics. Yet it seems to me that these comparisons are unfair.
The Rest Is Politics is based on a lie: that Campbell and Stewart are politically at odds with one another, and that their cordial conversations can therefore teach us “how to disagree agreeably”. They incessantly milk the fact that they once belonged to different political parties — parties which, it so happens, they were both effectively chucked out of in 2019. Although they have markedly different personalities — that staple of the podcast formula, gruff bloke meets meek intellectual — they agree with each other on practically everything. All this comes through in the podcast itself: they spend most episodes nodding along with what the other has to say, and massaging each other’s egos.
Balls and Osborne have a good deal less in common than Campbell and Stewart. Cunliffe remarks, of the first episode of Political Currency, that “you can almost hear the exasperated producer in the background shouting ‘Come on! More arguing!’ to no avail”. Yet in that single episode of Political Currency there is more genuine debate than The Rest Is Politics has produced in the eighteen months of its existence.
While listening to the first episode of Political Currency, I was surprised, for example, by how strongly Osborne and Balls disagreed on HS2. For Osborne, cancelling the branch to Manchester would be a “complete betrayal of the North”, proving his own party’s inability to make “difficult long-term decisions”. Balls, however, took the other view, albeit less vehemently: cancelling the Manchester branch “might be the right thing to do”.
Likewise, whereas Stewart and Campbell seldom criticise each other’s record in government, Balls and Osborne do not shy away from it. Osborne criticises Balls for his complicity, as Chief Economic Adviser to the Treasury, in Gordon Brown’s 1999 75p rise for pensioners. Balls later returns the favour. “Did you not read Keynes?”; “I did”, Osborne replies. “You didn’t take it in, did you?”
Stewart and Campbell never faced off against each other
Stewart and Campbell never faced off against each other; Stewart only became an MP in the election that killed off New Labour, and by the time he had manoeuvred his way into government, Campbell was but a distant memory. Balls and Osborne, in contrast, have a history with each other, which enlivens their discussions. They have, in some ways, led parallel lives. Both were the much-hyped bright young things of their parties in the 1990s; both rose through the ranks astonishingly quickly after being elected to parliament. Then, in those crucial years between 2010 and 2015, they were constantly strategising and manoeuvring against each other; both describe how they tried to lay traps for each other, and to get into the other’s head. Then, finally, they both fell as quickly as they had risen: Balls when he lost his seat in 2015’s ‘Portillo moment’ and Osborne a year later, when Theresa May felt that the architect of ‘Project Fear’ would not be a good fit for the first Brexit government.
It is true that both Osborne and Balls are Remainers, and this fact may of itself lend credence to the Stewart-Campbell comparisons. But this does not prevent them from disagreeing on matters of substance. Simply uttering the name “Boris Johnson” will provoke an aneurysm in both hosts of The Rest Is Politics. George Osborne is hardly Johnson’s biggest fan, but he did endorse him against Jeremy Hunt, now Osborne’s successor at Number 11, in the Conservative leadership election of 2019; at the end of the day, he is still a Tory, and Balls is still in Labour.
Reminiscences about the past can be self-indulgent, but Balls and Osborne have led sufficiently interesting enough lives to warrant them. We are fortunate to be able to hear two of the most powerful men in recent British political history speak with each other so candidly. Aside from other interesting tidbits, Osborne recounts how, while visiting China as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he returned to his hotel room to find some men rummaging through his luggage. Their emphasis on economic policy, on which they both naturally have extensive experience, will hopefully ensure that it won’t veer towards shallow and amateurish punditry about “optics”.
More than any other podcast currently on offer, Political Currency stands to tell us much about how the sausage is made. I expect to be tuning in every Thursday. The Rest Is Politics represents the worst of liberal, centrist politics: it is smug, self-satisfied, elitist, and timid. Political Currency is not an echo chamber: rather, it is the podcast that The Rest Is Politics pretends to be.
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