Alastair Campbell is an author and strategist. He was spokesperson and strategist for Tony Blair from 1994 to 2003.
It is a horrible feeling to be ashamed of your country.
I am a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party, but even when I covered Margaret Thatcher as a journalist, though I disagreed with so much of what she did, I wasn’t ashamed to hear her described as the British prime minister.
Today, at the age of 63, I feel ashamed and embarrassed as the world looks on at the national catastrophe that Boris Johnson has made of the COVID-19 crisis.
Until recently, I have identified myself as being from Britain (my passport), Scotland (my parentage, my heart), Europe (my geopolitics), Yorkshire (my birthplace) and London (where I live). Brexit tested that order of feeling. COVID-19, and the Johnson government’s handling of it, destroyed my sure sense of British identity. I have nothing in common with these people who run our country. They shame Britain and they make me feel sick.
I have known Mr. Johnson for many years, since we were both journalists – he for the right-wing Daily Telegraph and Spectator magazine, me for the left-wing Daily Mirror. Then, when I was Tony Blair’s spokesperson, Mr. Johnson would appear at some of my briefings to snort, make jokes and defend stories he had invented, such as Brussels’s plans to insist on one-size condoms or ban flavoured potato crisps and bent bananas. He rose to fame by being a figure of fun and has carried on all the way to the top with the same shtick. A joke has become the nation’s leader and is making our country a global laughingstock.
What COVID-19 has shown is just how unsuited he is for a serious position: dismissive of the crisis as it bore down on the world; ignoring the experts to boast he shook hands with infected patients; urging major sporting events to continue even as other nearby countries went into lockdown; failing to provide protective equipment to the front line; failing to deliver on promise upon promise that everyone who needed a test could get one; thinking, as with Brexit, that all that was required was slogans (squash the sombrero … send the virus packing … get Brexit done).
His faux Churchillian addresses have created as much confusion as they were designed to end. In between times, he has hidden away, barely visible even before he was ill. And since, he has only really emerged to defend his adviser, Dominic Cummings, who broke lockdown rules he helped devise and faced no sanction but the contempt of millions who had stayed home as instructed for two months.
We have long known Mr. Johnson is a liar. What the crisis has shown is that he is also serially incompetent. We are now up there with the United States, Russia and Brazil in the death-league table, with Mr. Johnson, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro called “the four leaders of the infected world” by Der Spiegel.
Mr. Johnson rose to the top of his party by persuading them he was a winner, able to appeal to people other Tories could not. And true, he has won a lot. He became mayor of London, all my life a Labour city; he won the Brexit referendum, against the odds; he won the Tory leadership, winning support even from MPs who said they knew he would be a disaster; and he won a general election. However, the qualities that got him there – a casual regard for truth, the ability to laugh off scandal, the mastery of turning complex issues into snappy slogans – are the exact opposite of what is needed now.
At the start of this crisis, I sent a note to ministers and civil servants on the approach government should take. The note was sent at their request, based partly on what we learned during the Blair years, and I published a version in the Evening Standard. I urged the government to devise and narrate a clear strategy, and use experts and a strong team to throw everything at the problem. It would be crucial to show genuine empathy for people affected by the crisis and to give hope, but not false hope.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Johnson has failed to follow any of these guidelines. There has been, and still is, no clear strategy. It veered from ignore, to herd immunity, to partial lockdown. The lockdown was breaking down even as Mr. Johnson was making great play that we could finally see a couple of people from another home, provided we observe physical distancing and stay outdoors. Most were not listening, as the beaches and parks were already packed.
Leadership, even before he was taken ill, was absent, and since Mr. Johnson returned he has been more focused on saving Mr. Cummings than on saving the country from COVID-19. The centre, shredded by austerity and the packing of cabinet with nothing but true Brexit believers, has been weakened. The team is pitifully weak. Experts are used not for expertise but to provide political cover. The big moments have been bedevilled by mixed messaging. As for empathy, ministers show little concern for the dead and grieving beyond robotic “our thoughts and prayers are with them,” day after day at briefings, which have become a masterclass in dreadful communications.
Mr. Johnson won power by posing as a friend of the people against a mythical elite. It was quite a con, given his privileged Eton and Oxford background. The Cummings scandal, and the confirmation that this clique sees itself as people who make rules for others, but do not feel compelled to obey them themselves, has exposed that people-versus-elite myth forever, and exposed Mr. Johnson for what some of us have always known him to be – a charlatan, utterly unsuited for any senior position, let alone the highest in the land.
All leaders, outside of dictatorships, come in for robust public criticism and Parliamentary criticism and challenge, and Justin Trudeau is no exception. But Canadians, who surely already know how lucky they are to have someone so different from Mr. Trump as leader, should add to that a great fortune to have someone so far removed from the style or skills of a Boris Johnson.
Looking around the world, it is interesting how many of the best-performing leaders are women; Angela Merkel in Germany, Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan, Erna Solberg in Norway, Mette Frederiksen in Denmark, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand.
Add the death toll in all of these countries together, and it is still dwarfed by Britain’s excess deaths – well over 60,000, more than could fit into any Premier League stadium (apart from the home of Manchester United).
To see who has done badly, just look at the numbers – the U.S., Britain, Russia and Brazil. And what else do Mr. Trump, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Putin and Mr. Bolsonaro have in common? They are nationalists, populists, liars. They reject genuine experts. They are motivated more by their own interests than those of the people. The virus of nationalist populism they share and spread is, in its own way, as dangerous as the virus that has killed so many of their people.
Mr. Johnson has recently sought to persuade teachers, parents and children that it is safe for schools to resume. His big argument was that other countries in Europe have shown it can be done. The big difference is that other countries in Europe have governments that are competent, well-led, able to build consensus and capable of explaining things without lying or boasting of what a great job they have done. This week, the government announced it would now not be reopening schools until September.
And to think these are the same people who have given us Brexit and still do not have a clue how it will work out. COVID-19 has given an indication, however, that it is unlikely to go well – least of all for Britain.
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