I know these are abnormal times, and we have an abnormal government, with a prime minister history will view as a spasm and an aberration, though sadly one with a major historic change, Brexit, to his name.
However, times are not so abnormal as to prevent me from saying the following two things with certainty, based on experience of a more normal government, with a competent prime minister who understood the need for a competent team around him.
The first is that the No 10 chief of staff is one of the most demanding jobs in government, requiring someone to be across everything that is happening that might impinge upon the prime minister’s time, priorities and relationships at home and abroad. The second is that being No 10 communications director requires not merely a closeness with the prime minister that allows you to be able to speak for him with conviction and to him with absolute honesty, but also genuine respect, and support for what he is trying to achieve.
Having seen just how hard Jonathan Powell worked as Tony Blair’s chief of staff, I am at a loss to understand how Boris Johnson thinks Steve Barclay can continue to be an MP, supposedly working hard for his constituents, and a minister answerable to Parliament on his own account, while doing that job. As for Guto Harri in the comms job, I get that Johnson wants someone he knows from his more carefree days as London Mayor. But having as your comms man someone who thinks that whatever your strengths, you’re really a bit of a dick who makes it all up as you go along … not ideal. The parties, the lies, the dissembling, the departures of staff, now the replacements … it all has the feel of a prime minister who, well, is a bit of a dick making it up as he goes along, his sole objective personal survival, whatever the damage done to the country and its institutions en route.
With the Six Nations rugby under way, I was pleased that England star Maro Itoje was the first in a new series of interviews I am doing for Men’s Health magazine (and even more pleased that Scotland beat them… sorry Maro.) Called Talking Heads, the series will have a focus on mental health, but will not be limited to it.
So I found myself talking politics and much else besides with Itoje, a fascinating man with an image far removed from rugby cliches of old. He doesn’t like beer, for starters. He is huge, but thoughtful and softly spoken.
He was educated at Harrow, but has deeply progressive views. He is proud of playing for England, but even prouder of his Nigerian heritage. He already has a degree in politics and is now fitting in an MBA course between playing, training, and his many off-field sponsorship, media and charity activities.
We’ve talked politics before, and I know he voted Liberal Democrat at the last general election. So I was interested to get his take a couple of years on, and it spoke to something I mentioned here last week, about people perhaps being ready for a return to basic decency in politics after the chaos and moral depravity of Johnson.
Though he thinks Labour need to do more to make the “compelling case” required to oust the Tories, he said: “I would vote Labour this time. I think Keir Starmer is a serious politician. He does not have the charisma of Johnson, but he is a serious politician, a more endearing politician, with a deeper feel and affection for the country.”
That “deep feel and affection for the country” sounds to me like a more authentic version of patriotism than Johnson’s flag-waving, foreigner-insulting, “world-beating” nationalism.
Given he went to Harrow, and is aware of my lifelong obsession with the damage Eton has done to the country, not least through the steady flow of prime ministers who might struggle to land jobs in a car wash were it not for their privileged upbringing and posh accents, Itoje knew we would get into all that.
AC: “If I abuse Old Etonians for ruining the country, is that the same as the rich looking down on the poor?”
MI: “Abuse is abuse, and wrong whatever, but it is a different power dynamic. When a perceived upper-class person looks down on someone they see as lower class, that has systemic ramifications. When lower-class people abuse the elites, whilst the abuse is wrong, it does not have the same structural ramifications. Top-down abuse is more damaging.”
AC: “What is your take today on the role of private education in our national life?”
MI: “I go back and forth on this a lot. There is a place for them, but they have a responsibility to do more for the communities in which they sit, and the other schools in those communities. Was it Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben who said “with great power comes great responsibility”? They have enormous resources and capacity and I don’t believe they should sit by themselves and care for themselves.”
AC: “Can Johnson even begin to understand what levelling up means if that is the kind of education he had, which is so out of reach of most people?”
MI: “It’s for him to define what he means by levelling up.”
The interview was conducted well before publication of the Levelling Up White Paper. Now that we have had it, fair to say we are still awaiting the definition.
My fellow cold-water swimmer Martin handed me a book in the lido changing room, saying I would find page 270 interesting. It had a great title, My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life, and its author, Georgia Pritchett, is a successful comedy and drama writer, including for shows such as The Thick Of It (for which creator Armando Iannucci is yet to give me my inspiration royalties), Succession, and Veep.
It is the then real Veep, Joe Biden, who features on page 270. And Martin was right. It is fascinating. Pritchett was asked to go to the White House to write something for the fictional Veep to film a sketch with Biden. Barack Obama’s deputy had just returned from a visit to the ever-topical Ukraine, but as he ventured into discussion of sensitive matters, he was advised to talk about something else.
“Noticing I was English,” she writes, “he changed the subject to how much his mother hated the English. His parents were Irish and she had written several poems about her hatred of the English. He went off to find them and returned with hundreds of poems describing how God must smite the English and rain blood on our heads.”
Then this, about the time Biden’s mother visited the UK and spent a night in a hotel where, she was told, the Queen had once stayed. “She was so appalled that she slept on the floor all night, rather than risk sleeping on a bed that the Queen had slept on,” reports Pritchett. “I admire anyone whose principles come between them and a comfy bed.”
Even assuming a bit of creative licence, that is quite a story. I wouldn’t mind seeing the poems, too.
“Aber spüren Sie nicht eine gewisse Schadenfreude, dass sein Untergang uns jetzt bevorsteht?” a German journalist asked me, and I am sure non-German speakers will at least pick out Schadenfreude from the question: whether I felt joy in damage to Johnson now that his downfall was so clearly upon us.
Truth be told, I didn’t, and I don’t. I found myself inventing a German word, explaining that I felt something closer to Schadenschande… “Schande” means “shame”. I actually feel ashamed to be British whenever anyone asks me about what is happening in our politics right now, and ashamed that we seem to have at the top people for whom the very concept of shame has no meaning