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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: How Boris Johnson became an accidental fascist

The prime minister wasn't born a fascist. But his incompetence and desperation to survive is certainly driving him in that direction

Image: The New European

I don’t think Boris Johnson was born a fascist, or that he ever viewed himself as one as he rose through his gilded education, his journalistic and then political career. Indeed, as London mayor, he always seemed more comfortable displaying broadly liberal views, and being loved by the crowd.

Right now, though he continues to have defenders, many of them MPs on the Tory benches, their spines removed and their souls on death row, he is widely despised, far more than he can ever imagined possible, or thought desirable.

Autocrats tend to be loved and hated in equal measure while on the march, but end up being hated more universally in the final reckoning. And a final reckoning, in his case, will come, long before THE final reckoning. It is a matter of when not if.

In the meantime, why do I so strongly share the fears of those who think we need to talk about the F-word, as SNP MP Mhairi Black did recently in parliament? Though the Commons was far from full, what was remarkable was that she could say the word “fascist” in relation to a British prime minister and a British government, and the few Tory MPs in there merely shuffled uneasily, rather than spluttered at the outlandishness of the claim.

There’s a reason I have been writing here regularly about the Nolan Principles of public life, and reciting them any time I get the chance on TV and radio – Honesty, Openness, Objectivity, Selflessness, Integrity, Accountability and Leadership; because I was convinced from day one that Johnson’s inability to meet them would be his downfall. I have been proved right about his failure to abide by them; but wrong, as yet, that it would bring about his downfall.

Even I, low though my opinion of him may be, did not imagine that the response to his final realisation that barely anyone on earth thought he had been honest about parties in Downing Street, would be to chuck the Nolan Principles in the bin. You might call it pre-fascism. It is saying “I must not and will not be removed from power. I will therefore remove the basis on which my removal might take place.” Like Trump and the Capitol riots, only mid-term and without violence. But … you can see where I am going.

At the weekend I was in Portugal, for a conference on Covid. I wrote my speech well before this latest corrupt and corrupting chapter in our life. I said this: “Leaders in a crisis must be honest both with themselves and with the public. The difficulty is, traits associated with populism include: denigrating experts; attacking the media; using external threats to grow nationalistic sentiment; undermining checks and balances provided by institutions; the promotion of a charismatic, messianic ‘strong man’ leader. Hardly a checklist for who you may want in charge during a pandemic.”

I quoted Angela Merkel: “‘You cannot fight the pandemic with lies and disinformation any more than you can fight it with hate or incitement to hatred. The limits of populism and denial of basic truth are being laid bare. Democracies need truth and transparency.”’

If the democracies don’t fight for truth and transparency, they weaken and we end in a very dark place. There are some who think we are dealing with a born and bred fascist. I see Johnson more as a potential accidental fascist. A combination of his incompetence, his desperation to survive, and his relentless reliance on the old populist songs that got him via Brexit to No 10, is driving him in that direction.

We had the return to Imperial measures the other day. All pointlessly trivial. The scraping of the HOOSIAL code is not. And do you really think if the incompetence-desperation-populist combo continues, and these pathetic MPs continue to pretend this is all normal, that he won’t float into issues like the death penalty, even greater control of the media, further politicising of institutions designed to hold the powerful to account, action against political opponents? I do.

What was it Dominic Cummings reported as hearing Johnson declare? “Everyone better remember I am the fucking Führer round here.” A joke? Maybe. Trouble is, he’s just not funny.

Keir Starmer could do worse than go on a brain-picking visit to Lisbon – the brain being the leader of Labour’s sister Socialist party, António Costa, now in his third term as prime minister. He came second in the 2015 election, but ran a minority government helped by parties to the left of him, who had previously been fierce opponents; he came first in 2019, but again without a majority, and this time governed with the same parties in informal support. But when they provoked a budget crisis in late 2021, the president dissolved parliament, and at the election Costa won his first absolute majority.

He did so with policy and messaging clearly rooted in the centre part of centre left, and so took votes from the left and from the right. The Communists fell from 12 seats in the parliament to six, and the radical left bloc from 19 to five. The Social Democrats came close to being wiped out, and on the weekend I was there were busy choosing a new leader.

No country’s politics is identical to another’s, and the Portuguese electoral system is very different to ours. But the journey Costa has been on should inspire any progressive leader in these populist times, particularly one who might need a minority government en route to a majority one.

I have been an ABBA fan since Waterloo in 1974, and was thrilled to get a ticket to the opening night of ABBA Voyage in which, via AI wizardry, avatars perform the old greats along with songs from the new album.

We were sitting a few seats from Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and his Dancing Queen herself, in the other direction a row or two from the real ABBA, and directly behind the young body doubles who had recorded the movements that became the movements of the avatars on stage. It was impossible not to be moved by how moved they were, watching their incredible work come to fruition.

Within seconds of the whole thing starting, it feels like a real concert. You are watching ABBA live. Try to see it, for the tech, for the music, for the legacy. As the old saying goes, you either love ABBA, or you’re a liar.

As a regular sufferer of earworm, in which a song gets into your head and you can’t get it out, I woke up not with any of the oldies, but I Still Have Faith In You from the new album in my head. But alongside it was concern, that the technology was so convincing, it brought home to me just how real this whole deepfake thing is going to be in an already difficult and dangerous political and media ecosystem. I’m not sure I have faith that it will all be used for the kind of good we saw from the ABBA avatars.

The double standards of most of our media are nothing new. But when you think how much grief I got from the press back in the day for allegedly lying when I didn’t, it seems quite remarkable that the current PM’s spokesman is barely known outside the Westminster village, despite admitting that he has been lying to them for months.

“The prime minister’s official spokesman has apologised for repeated false statements about Partygate.” Can you imagine the hoo-ha if this had happened in my day? Panorama specials, Mail pullouts, select committee inquiry for sure. You don’t even know the name of the one who admitted lying, do you? Me neither. Lucky guy!

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