Share

cover art for The dark arts of politics

Westminster Insider

The dark arts of politics

Season 10, Ep. 8

In the final episode of the season, host Aggie Chambre explores the clandestine operations, secretive briefing wars and campaign stunts that make up the darker side of politics — and asks if there is still a place for such activities in 2023. 

She speaks to crossbench peer John Woodcock, who — in a former life — was a Labour Party researcher and occasional undercover spy. He tells Aggie how one secret mission in 2005 derailed the career of a former deputy Conservative Party chairman. 

Former Downing Street comms boss and News of the World editor Andy Coulson tells how, while working for David Cameron in opposition, he took advantage of Gordon Brown's decision not to call an election with a simple but eye-catching PR stunt. 

Another former Cameron aide, Giles Kenningham, explains why — with an election looming — political parties will now be building up treasure troves of secret recordings and other destructive data to deploy against their opponents.

Former Labour Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong talks about the internal dark arts —underhand techniques used against party colleagues — and why her boss Tony Blair, no great fan of such methods, chose not to take action against a serial rebel on his backbenches called Jeremy Corbyn.

Commons public administration committee Chair William Wragg and former Deputy Chief Whip Anne Milton explain why they think the dark arts are best left in the past.

And Paul Staines, of the notorious Guido Fawkes blog, reveals some of the underhand tricks he uses to get his biggest scoops — and explains why for him, the very best stories are those that end politicians' careers. 

More episodes

View all episodes

  • 6. What's the point of a manifesto?

    42:24
    As Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer prepare to launch their manifestos, host Sascha O’Sullivan takes a look at what goes into the making of the crucial documents that spell out each party’s plan for government.Former Tory adviser Cleo Watson recalls how it all went wrong for Theresa May at the 2017 election when a manifesto pledge on social care blew up.Authors of the 2019 manifesto Rachel Wolf and Rob Colvile explain how the slogan “Get Brexit Done” got the election done for Boris Johnson.Stalwart of the New Labour years Patrick Diamond, who wrote manifestos for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, recalls struggling to pinning ministers down agree on policy, while Torsten Bell, 2015 manifesto author, discusses how to stick to pledges in government.And Sascha also speaks to Andrew Fisher, writer of the Labour Party’s 2017 and 2019 manifestos, who fesses up to historic mistakes and talks about how the leaking of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 plan ended up being a boon rather than a bust.
  • 5. The art of the TV debate

    44:44
    Days before this general election's first television debate, host Aggie Chambre looks back at the history of debates in this country and asks how politicians go about winning them. ITV's Julie Etchingham, who will host the first debate Tuesday, recalls being asked to take on the gig, explains what she's thinking during these set piece events and reveals what really happens before and after the debates take place. Reform's Nigel Farage, who has performed in several TV debates, gives his tips for how to get airtime and why it matters which podium you stand at. BBC political correspondent Joe Pike reminisces with Aggie about pretending to be politicians in rehearsals, and talks about what candidates do to prepare, including the party leader who hid out in a barn in Kent to undergo a thorough practice.Former Lib Dem spinner Sean Kemp said he believed the debates in 2010 were "the reason why David Cameron didn't win a majority."Former Sky News boss John Ryley talks about the campaign he spearheaded to get American-style debates going in the U.K. and explains why he believes they are so important for election campaigns.But former No. 10 director of Comms Craig Oliver describes the idea that debates have been some great service to democracy as "nonsense."
  • 4. The media and the UK election: Can Fleet Street still win it?

    39:12
    Will the Sun win it? After Rishi Sunak called a shock general election, host Aggie Chambre set out to discover just how much influence newspapers will have in this campaign. Former Labour Leader Neil Kinnock tells her what it was like being attacked in the press in the run up to the 1992 election.Former Sun editor David Yelland reminisces about Rupert Murdoch and Tony Blair's relationship — and said it was like a "love affair." He says getting the backing of Fleet Street can be a "self fulfilling prophecy." Sky News Political Editor Beth Rigby explains how Labour Leader Keir Starmer is going about trying to get a "fair hearing" in the press, and talks about the symbiotic relationship between broadcast and print. Former News of the World editor and director of comms Andy Coulson explains how you go about securing newspaper endorsements and says everyone underestimates how much they still matter. And finally, former Downing Street director of comms Lee Cain explains how the way we consume news has changed. And says he believes Brexit still would have won even without the backing of some newspapers. This episode has been updated to correct the attendees of a 2005 dinner.
  • 3. Is the Bank of England really a secret political player?

    44:07
    Just how much power do the economists of Threadneedle Street really wield? As the Bank of England grapples with whether to keep interest rates at an all time high, host Sascha O’Sullivan goes on a mission to find out.In this week’s episode, she speaks to those who have been at the very heart of Westminster's relationship with the Bank for the last three decades.Former Prime Minister Liz Truss tells Sascha exactly why she believes Bank of England economists were attempting to pull apart her mini-budget and "take her down."Former shadow chancellor and Gordon Brown adviser Ed Balls explains how the Bank's independence came about in 1997, and suggests some of the people sitting on the Monetary Policy Committee have developed a spot of group think in their decision making.Torsten Bell, chief executive of the Resolution Foundation and former adviser to Alistair Darling, talks about how the 2008 global financial crisis changed the powers the Bank could deploy in times of emergency.And Andy Haldane, the former chief economist for the Bank of England for more than 30 years, reveals how close to a political intervention the then-Governor Mark Carney came during the Brexit years and how, after the pandemic, the Bank's economists missed inflation coming down the track.
  • 2. How to prepare a secret Tory leadership campaign

    44:01
    After the Tories' drubbing in the local elections and the many, many rumors about efforts to unseat Rishi Sunak, Aggie Chambre talks us through how to prepare a secret Conservative leadership campaign.Former No. 10 head of political comms Adam Jones takes us inside Liz Truss's "fizz with Liz" soirees, explains why she took *that* picture in the tank, and says his former boss got "punch drunk" on love from Tory members. Former adviser Lucia Hodgson, who ran Andrea Leadsom's 2019 leadership bid, explains the years of work they put into that campaign, and reveals why you need to know everything you can about your opponents. Aggie speaks to former Tory contender Michael Heseltine about what he did and did not do before his infamous run in 1990 — about his regrets, supporters and missteps. And former Cabinet minister Nadine Dorries claims it’s nigh on impossible to get any work done in government when everyone is so obsessed with who the next leader of the Conservative Party will be.
  • 1. Inside the Westminster honey trap scandal

    51:32
    In the first episode of season 14, host Aggie Chambre tells the inside story of how POLITICO broke the Westminster honey trap story, and goes in search of who is really responsible.She hears from most of the key characters involved in the scandal that rocked SW1. Two victims tell Aggie about their messages and one of them explains what happened when he organized a meeting with the catfisher. POLITICO's own Dan Bloom reveals for the first time that he received a message from the mysterious catfisher and talks through his part in breaking the story. The BBC's Henry Zeffman describes what it was like to be targeted and why he initially smelled a rat. The Times’ Aubrey Allegretti gives behind the scenes details of his initial phone call with William Wragg, when the MP admitted some involvement in the scandal. And Ciaran Martin, former CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre, explains how the scandal shed "a lot of light on the vulnerabilities of our political system."
  • 8. The secrets of the pollsters

    49:05
    Host Sascha O'Sullivan delves into the secrets of the polling industry and asks — if the polls were wrong before, could they be wrong again?David Cameron's former pollster Andrew Cooper tells Sascha how the Conservatives upstaged the polling industry in 2015 and pulled an unexpected election victory out of the bag.Labour polling stalwart Stan Greenberg, who has run the numbers for Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Ed Miliband, explains what the other side of the 2015 campaign was like.Tom Lubbock of JL Partners and Josh Williams of Labour Together explain why voter archetypes — from "Mondeo Man" to "Stevenage Woman" — are so beloved by the media ... and how they're actually useful for politicians seeking to win elections. Sascha also tags along to a series of focus groups — including with More in Common's Luke Tryl — to see how they really work.And the New Statesman's associate political editor, Rachel Cunliffe, and pollster Scarlett Maguire explain how communicating polling can be twisted or over-egged — and why we really should be talking about more than just the top line. 
  • 7. Leak inquiry: what happens when Westminster's secrets are spilled

    38:40
    This week, Aggie Chambre looks at the art of the leak and asks — why do people do it, and what happens when your political secrets are exposed?Former Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green talks about helping to leak Home Office secrets when Labour was in charge.Aggie hears from journalist and author Isabel Oakeshott about her controversial decision to leak Matt Hancock’s Covid WhatsApps — and why she had to adopt a disguise during the process.POLITICO’s Jack Blanchard and Jeremy Corbyn’s former spinner James Schneider tell Aggie about the infamous 2017 Labour manifesto leak and the consequences for the party’s campaign.And Times political editor Steven Swinford, recipient of a hefty chunk of Westminster’s secrets, talks us through how he got leaked information about the second Covid lockdown and government decisions around Huawei. 
  • 6. How Westminster fell in love with Australian politics

    51:12
    New host Sascha O'Sullivan explores Westminster's obsession with all things Australia — and considers the lessons British politics might learn from down under.From the U.K. Tory party's succession of Aussie campaign chiefs to the varying attempts to deploy Australian-style immigration policies, Westminster has held an enduring fascination with its rougher political cousins down under. Sascha speaks to former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who has long enjoyed links with the U.K. Tory party and who was the first premier to vow to "stop the boats."Rohan Watt, a Queensland native who worked in Liz Truss's No. 10 Downing Street, explains how Australian advisers have long been surfing the coattails of legendary campaign guru Lynton Crosby, and how their blunt style of communication has made them mainstays in British politics. Australian-British journalist Latika Bourke considers the brutal campaign tactics sometimes deployed down under, while foreign policy expert Sophia Gaston explains how the recently-signed AUKUS security pact will reinforce relations between the two countries.Comms guru John McTernan, who worked for both Tony Blair in Downing Street and Australian PM Julia Gillard in Canberra, explains why Australia can offer a helpful election playbook for British politicos to follow — but why Westminster should be wary of stealing their ideas wholesale. And Labour's Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson tells how she recently undertook a fact-finding trip to Australia to gather advice on childcare policy from the Aussie Labor Party — as well as tips on how to help U.K. Labour win an election.