How to build a chart-topping political podcast

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Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell record The Rest Is Politics (Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell for ES magazine)
Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell record The Rest Is Politics (Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell for ES magazine)

‘Rory… what are you wearing?’

As a listener to their podcast, it is wonderful to get to see Rory Stewart’s face when Alastair Campbell begins, as he so often does on The Rest is Politics, to rib him. And it doesn’t take long.

‘Are you wearing a kilt?’ grins the former New Labour director of communications, all of five seconds into our interview. I see a weary expression on the face of the one-time Tory leadership hopeful, followed by the trace of a smile.

‘I’m wearing a kilt, yes.’

‘Why? Why are you wearing a kilt?’

‘Because I’ve been talking to a Scottish school where all the little kids were in kilts. And…’

‘Oh, not a private school, Rory. Please tell me you’ve not been speaking in private schools again. What is it about you and private schools?’ A bigger smile. Two bigger smiles, in fact. Three if you count mine.

‘They’re all big fans. One of them, this little kid, was on his way to Eton, came up to me and went, “I’m such a big fan of the podcast. I love hearing Alastair…”’

Berating Eton every two minutes?

‘Even though Alastair berates Eton all the time. Maybe they just kind of tune that out.’

For the uninitiated, this exchange gives some idea of what listening to The Rest is Politics is like. Ostensibly, yes, it is a serious podcast: where everything from the current government to the situation in Ukraine to the under-reported goings on in Sri Lanka, or Colombia, or Burundi is discussed and dissected by two incredibly well-informed, as-passionate-as-ever men from either side of the political divide. But it is also a lot of fun. You are never more than a few minutes away from a war story involving Campbell arguing with Tony and Cherie Blair about the then-prime minister’s coat, while an amused Vladimir Putin looks on. Or Stewart doing his (very good) Boris Johnson impression when (not fondly) reminiscing about his time working in the Foreign Office. Or Campbell remembering the time he met Miley Cyrus, with Johnson, at the behest of their daughters.

Boris Johnson, as you would expect, does feature quite often. To put it mildly, neither Campbell nor Stewart, otherwise as different as red chalk and blue cheese, are fans. ‘If it can be believed,’ says Stewart, ‘I maybe have a deeper moral problem with him than Alastair does. But obviously in a sense he’s also paradoxically a kind of gift to us.’

This is true. In the same way Donald Trump made life easier for US newspapers, Johnson’s omnipresence in the political news cycle — Campbell is forever chastising Stewart for referring to the PM as ‘Boris’ — surely helps a show like The Rest is Politics. I wonder, for example, whether Sir Keir Starmer versus, say, Jeremy Hunt would provide as much material for discussion.

‘Yes. Or if Keir Starmer was in office, because then I think it is a bit more tricky,’ says Stewart. ‘Alastair still feels a very, very strong loyalty to the Labour Party and would find it pretty difficult to hammer the Labour prime minister, I think.’

‘The only thing I’d say about that,’ continues Campbell, ‘is I think we talk about Johnson less on the podcast than, for example, I write about him in my column in The New European. Ukraine being a very good example. I’d say in the early days after the invasion, most of our discussion, I think, was about foreign policy. Obviously with some elements of what was happening in Britain. And I think also, to be absolutely honest, people do like us raging about Boris Johnson.

‘But we don’t just do that,’ he concludes. ‘We talk about a lot of other stuff and we’re very careful to do that. I don’t want it just to become a kind of rant at Johnson every week.’

The Rest is Politics was born when Gary Lineker’s production company, Goalhanger, branched out into podcasting. Campbell had known the guy put in charge of this new area ‘for years and years. Because we’re both absolute fanatics of Burnley Football Club.’ It was suggested that Campbell should team up with a Tory and do a political show.

‘Their initial idea,’ Campbell says, ‘was me and Dominic Cummings. I did actually have a conversation with Dominic Cummings and he said no. “I’m too busy getting rid of the trolley,” were his words. And then I thought, “Well, Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine, probably wrong generation.” I thought Anna Soubry, I thought Dominic Grieve, I just threw a few names around, and I obviously did have Rory on that longlist. But then I did an Instagram Live and basically just said, “If I was going to do a podcast with a Tory, who do you think I should do it with?” There were loads of suggestions, but when I went through the whole lot close to half were saying Rory Stewart. Really interesting.’

Stewart, having met Campbell previously in Stephen Kinnock’s garden, ‘loved the idea’ and said yes immediately. And despite the fact that they were, and are, very rarely in the same place — the only episode that they have done in the room together took place at Stewart’s home in Scotland — things moved, thanks to Zoom, very quickly. Three weeks on from their initial discussion, the first episode was uploaded: the stated goal being ‘to disagree agreeably’. It’s a principle that they have largely adhered to, bar one discussion about the Northern Ireland protocol that dissolved into the kind of shouting match you might expect in a bar, or, you know, the chamber of the House Of Commons. ‘The thing relies on us being able to talk to each other with respect, obviously, and treat each other as equals,’ says Stewart. ‘And I think we’ve recovered from that, but I think it was an example of what can go wrong.’

This particular incident aside it is clear that, as Campbell puts it, ‘we sort of get on. We’re from very different backgrounds, very different politics, but we get on.’ I ask them what qualities they see in each other. ‘I think Alastair, his great quality is immense clarity and confidence,’ says Stewart. ‘He’s got an incredibly clear world view and it’s incredibly refreshing and helpful to have somebody who sees the world that confidently, that quickly. I respond very well to that because I can see his idea very clearly and either agree with him or disagree.’

Of Stewart, Campbell says it is ‘the vastness of his curiosity that I really like. He knows a lot about history, he knows a lot about geography, he knows a lot about diplomacy and politics: with lots and lots of stuff, I think he’s got a deeper knowledge than I have. But no matter how much he knows, he’s, I think, always wanting to learn.’

From the get-go, it was clear that the formula, however odd-couple-unlikely, was working. Stats, the pair say, they are ‘not really meant to give out’. But Campbell does note that downloads for the most recent two episodes were ‘well into six figures’. Some weeks, Stewart enthuses, there is ‘20 to 30 per cent growth’. It has been top of the Apple Podcast charts from pretty much day one. ‘I think we were seven weeks without a break and in total, over the 18 weeks [we’ve aired], it’s almost 10 weeks that we’ve been at the top. We’ve never been out of the top five,’ says Campbell. ‘I did send the production team a message this week. Something called Chatabix got to No 1 for a couple of hours. I went, “What the f*** is Chatabix? Why is it at No 1?”’

The best metric for how well The Rest is Politics is connecting, though, comes from people on the street. ‘Honestly,’ Campbell says, ‘if you do something like Sky News or BBC Breakfast or Good Morning Britain and then you’re walking around, you might get three or four people say, “Ooh, I just saw you on the telly,” or, “Ooh, I just heard you on the radio.” But with this podcast… at the moment it’s happening everywhere I go, all the time.’

‘I find it a bit disturbing,’ Stewart continues. ‘I was on the plane flying over from Jordan and the flight attendant was listening to it and told me. And then the guy in the seat behind me told me he was listening to it. And the guy in the seat across. Same thing as I’m queuing at immigration. And then I got to London, I was walking out of my hotel and I got chased down by a priest on a bicycle, who came banging up on to the pavement and said, “Just want to tell you…” you know. Alastair, I think, is calmer about it than I am. I actually find it a little bit over the top. I’m hoping it calms down a bit.’

That, unfortunately for Stewart, seems unlikely. Their most recent episode, featuring Tony Blair as their first-ever guest, was their biggest yet. And there are plans for more. Campbell says a plan is ‘already in motion’ to get a Conservative prime minister. They mention Theresa May and David Cameron. But also that they definitely do not want it become a weekly interview show. And rightly so. Because quite frankly it’s working fine with just the two of them,

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