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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: The media are normalising a deeply abnormal leadership race

There is too little questioning either of the process to choose the next prime minister or scrutiny of the half-baked proposals and vacuous slogans the candidates are bringing to the table

Rishi Sunak MP is seen on a TV screen during the first live TV Conservative party leadership debate on Channel 4 (Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images)

Tweet of the Month, from Kev Hall, aka @deKuip02, who accurately explains the story dominating all others in the UK’s bizarre politico-media ecosystem, describing the Tory leadership election as follows: “New Tory PM to fix mess that current Tory PM made, who promised to fix the mess the Tory PM before him made following the mess the Tory PM before her made. It all started with the mess the current PM created when he wasn’t PM in order to become PM.”

Between them, three Tory prime ministers over 12 years of Austerity, Brexit and Charlatanism have weakened our economy, reduced some of our most vital public services to breaking point, and done irreparable damage to our standing in the world. Yet a media which helped to normalise and justify all of the above, when so much of it was deeply abnormal, now treats us to endless, breathlessly excited coverage of the bizarre process by which Tory PM number four is being chosen.

When the BBC news leads on an attorney general who backs prime ministerial law-breaking coming out in support of a former Remainer
turned Good Friday Agreement-destroying Brexit fanatic whose campaign is built on unfunded tax promises every bit as fantastical as those on which Tory PM number three got the job, does nobody in the editorial process stop to ask: “Do we need a bit more ‘context’ here?” And as none of their reports seem complete without the latest views of failed Brexit negotiator turned self-styled Tory Party sage “Lord” David Frost, or failed Brexit secretary David Davis, giggling away boastfully about Tory MPs being the most duplicitous electorate on the planet, is nobody saying: “I wonder if we shouldn’t be challenging the overall narrative of this contest a bit harder?”

Of course the election of a new Tory leader who becomes prime minister is enormously important and newsworthy. Krishnan Guru- Murthy did a good job keeping things moving along as five variously bang-average candidates platituded their way through the first televised debate, but there is so little questioning either of the process to choose the next PM in this way, or real scrutiny of the half-baked proposals and vacuous slogans they are all bringing to the table.

Thank heavens for Sky News’ business presenter Ian King for just blurting out the truth … “I’ve never heard such rubbish,” he said of the various fantasy economics platforms being laid out. I fear there may be worse to come.

Talking of distorted news values … I don’t think I have ever read a watchdog report quite as blunt and brutal as the Environment Agency’s judgement on England’s water companies. Yet I would not be at all surprised if this is the first you have heard of it.

The foreword, by chair Emma Howard Boyd, is utterly excoriating, calling the environmental performance of the nine water and sewerage companies “the worst we have seen for years.” Some companies are condemned as “terrible across the board;” the performance on pollution is “shocking;” the behaviour of company directors is “simply unacceptable.”

She is scathing about the money that they have paid themselves, set against poor performance, then says this: “We have begun the country’s largest ever investigation into environmental crime, involving all the companies, where we are looking at whether they have knowingly and deliberately broken the law in relation to the treatment and discharge of sewage. But this is not enough. The water companies will only stop behaving like this if they are forced to. The amount a company can be fined for environmental crimes is
unlimited, but fines currently handed down by the courts often amount to less than a chief executive’s salary. We need courts to impose much higher fines for serious and deliberate pollution incidents. The threat of significant impending financial penalties has an impact. Investors should no longer see England’s water monopolies as a one-way bet.”

And then this: “Repeat offenders can now expect criminal prosecutions for less serious environmental incidents where once the Environment Agency would have used civil powers. We would like to see prison sentences for chief executives and board members whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents. We would also like to see company directors being struck off so they cannot simply delete illegal environmental damage from their CV and move on to their next role.”

The Environment Agency chair calling for bosses of the privatised water companies to be jailed … call me old-fashioned, but I would have called that quite newsworthy. Yet so broken is Britain after the ABC mentioned above, and so obsessed is our media about what Suella said about whether Liz was more of a Brextremist than Penny or Kemi, and what Tom was thinking he should tell his people to do in order to get a decent job if Rishi ends up winning, that such a shocking story, backed with horrific analysis of the declining performance of these companies, barely limps into the debate.

I had a very nice time at Sandhurst Military Academy, visiting the Army Leadership Centre, and being interviewed by Lt-Col Henry Llewelyn-Usher for their podcast series on modern leadership. I have enough experience of, and respect for, our armed forces to know that I had to leave my political views out of our exchanges, so recent events in the political arena were not mentioned.

However, as I later read through the latest iteration of the Army Leadership Doctrine, which is heavy on values, standards, ethics, moral courage and integrity, I couldn’t help being drawn to the page identifying what it calls “characteristics of toxic leaders.” Autocratic. Narcissistic. Manipulative. Intimidating. Overly competitive. Discriminatory.

The doctrine is very much aimed at military leaders. But it is a good read, and political leaders would do well to study and absorb it too.

We are currently getting more than a thousand questions sent in on email and social media before Rory Stewart and I record the weekly Question Time session for our podcast, The Rest Is Politics. Many of last week’s thousand plus variously expressed rage, resentment, powerlessness and frustration that a position as important as prime minister is being decided by what one listener called “a bunch of ageing Tory farts whose critical brain functions have been rotted by the right-wing press.” As with Kev Hall’s tweet, it really is quite hard to argue with that assessment.

Added to which, someone I know to have been a lifelong Tory called me to say how much he appreciated me being nice about John Major in last week’s column. We got chatting about the Tory leadership

“So who are you voting for?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t have a vote. I left when Johnson kicked all the decent people out. You’d be amazed how many of us left.”

Good news for the headbangers. Bad news for Britain.

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