March 23, 2023 - 11:33am

Last night, at the London Palladium, two and a half thousand people attended a sĂ©ance. Packed in from stalls to rafters, they were there to mourn, remember, and, however briefly, reconjure the hope of a better, smarter, more honourable politics. A montage of political villains played on the screen above the stage as the show began. Boris Johnson invited boos. Matt Hancock — jeers. And then Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell were summoned in their place, to rapturous applause.

Lending this pantomime atmosphere was the audience: the vanguard of London’s outraged, gnashing centrists. The event was The Rest is Politics Live, adapted from the crowning jewel of Gary Lineker’s podcast empire, Goalhanger. And the show cribs not only its title but its dynamic from its Goalhanger brother, The Rest is History, and ultimately from most male British double acts: bulky, direct straight-talker meets slight, effete intellectual. But it has evolved into its own beast. Goalhanger’s MD claims it’s the biggest podcast in Britain. And like all big podcasts, it has an obsessive, cultish following. Before the show, fans referred to the presenting pair with first-person intellectual solidarity, as in “Rory’s so right about
” The guy next to me had been to the live show twice.

Most of their podcasts are relatively free-flowing, astute commentaries on the week’s events, though there is an axial theme: the moral desert of British politics, and its spineless, serpentine politicians. But this event was putatively structured around the subject of “crisis management”. This consisted of Campbell and Stewart playing clips of crises past and present, and offering their managerial advice. Lineker’s BBC row got a look in. Stewart critiqued his handling of the 2015 Storm Desmond floods. Campbell gave foot-and-mouth and the 2000 petrol protests the benefit of hindsight. But, try as they might, they couldn’t keep away from their favourite topic. Campbell tried to shoot the elephant early on: “Who thinks Boris Johnson is dishonest?” A forest of raised hands.

Campbell and Stewart both hark back to a supposed golden age of ethical clarity in government, located somewhere imprecisely in the past. Their history of the present is an inversion of Peter Hennessy’s “good chap” theory of government: the state has been overrun by bad chaps, the worst chaps. Self-serving, venal actors loosed from the bounds of normal propriety by populist political forces. The ideological gales of our time are not the product of a unique set of social and material upheavals, but of the failure of our political class to bottle and tame them. In this reading, the political transformations of post-2016 really become little more than a failed example of crisis management.

One of the more irritating aspects of the otherwise amiable Stewart-Campbell partnership is their boast that they “disagree agreeably”. The problem is they don’t disagree — their one great barney, on Northern Ireland, is remembered with fond exceptionality. Now they dwell in the same centrist wilderness, ejected from a politics that has overtaken them. The most tantalising moment of last night’s show therefore came when they revealed that the podcast’s producers had previously mooted different co-presenters, Dominic Cummings for Campbell, and Jeremy Corbyn for Stewart. The promise of either challenging, provocative pairing seemed inspired after such a show — a world where both would be forced to reckon with the changing age, instead of resenting and admonishing it from their podcast silo.