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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: ‘A crisis as big as any faces our country, but the PM sits idle’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson takes part in an activity with school children as he visits the NLV Pharos, a lighthouse tender moored on the river Thames to mark London International Shipping Week. Picture: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Boris Johnson got away with lies and misdemeanours during the referendum. ALASTAIR CAMPBELL asks why do we expect anything different as PM?

To Belfast, for a People’s Vote rally, en route trying to guess roughly how many times I have done that flight before… it’s into the dozens, most of them as Tony Blair sought to deliver what so many thought impossible, peace in Northern Ireland.

If I found Boris Johnson remotely funny, I would almost be tempted to laugh when he talks of the “hard work” involved in the “intensive negotiations” to get a Brexit deal in time to have us out of the EU by October 31. ‘Intensive negotiations’ are the kind I describe in The Irish Diaries, full of sleepless all-night sessions, seemingly endless argument over this phrase or that, this word or that; progress followed by setback, breakthrough followed by breakdown, round and round, again and again until, somehow, a miracle occurred and it all fell into place.

The story so far of Johnson’s intensive negotiations would require a two-sided leaflet rather than a book. It is only his inexhaustible capacity for lying that allows him to say any such intensive negotiation has gone on. There were meetings with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, at which no serious credible proposal was put forward by the new prime minister, leaving the German chancellor and French president, out of politeness rather than hope, echoing the line that if he came up with something in the next 30 days, they would take a look. (Or, “BREAKTHROUGH FOR BORIS”, as the toady press put it the next day.)

This week he finally got round to seeing Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, who has been ever more baffled by the UK talk of the two sides getting closer when there has been little to get closer about. There was the empty chairing by Luxembourg PM Xavier Bettel after their empty talks. Oh, and there was the day trip to Dublin where Johnson stood alongside Leo Varadkar and indulged in a bit of stretching – his arms, that is, rather than his usual target for stretching, namely the truth.

Both as journalist and politician, Johnson has developed a reputation for laziness. It’s not that he cannot put in the hours, provided they involve him making people laugh, making himself the centre of attention. What he tends not to use his time for is the real hard graft of policy analysis and problem-solving. The bigger the problem, the likelier he is to resort to a nice big lie, a nice big round number, whether the £350 million a week for the NHS, or the 20,000 new police that will likely go the same way as his Boris garden bridge or his Boris island airport.

It is becoming clearer that so far as he is concerned, his job is not to govern, but to campaign; not to solve problems, but create them; not to portray a long-term vision for the country, but a day by day, hand to mouth kaleidoscope that ends up looking like the paintings on the walls of a primary school classroom.

In the post-truth, post-shame world of Trump and Johnson, words no longer have meaning, just impact. ‘Intensive negotiations’ is a phrase designed to convey that there are, er, intensive negotiations going on, and as he is the prime minister, the media dutifully report those words.

Just as they reported that the chances of no-deal were “a million to one”, then shortly afterwards moved to “touch and go”. At the Convention of the North last week, where he was heckled yet again, this time by a member of the public demanding why he was not intensively negotiating in parliament or Brussels, you could actually see the wiring of his brain working as he conjured up yet another phrase devoid of actual meaning, but yet which duly became the soundbite of choice for the journalists covering the event… “cautiously optimistic”.

You do need the occasional phrase to trot out for the press, whether a hand of history falling on Tony Blair’s shoulders or, one of my hardy annuals at the time, ‘difficult but doable’. But pre-Trump, pre-Johnson, there was a need, not least out of self-respect of both politicians and media, that the words had some basic connection with what was actually happening in the talks. Johnson was no more or less cautiously optimistic than he had been a day before, a week before, because there had been no negotiations at all, intensive or otherwise. The time is surely coming when a television journalist is entitled to say “this is what he said, Huw, but frankly it is so far from the truth I don’t think we should waste our breath on it”.

As I told the rally in Belfast, that day when the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) fell into place was the greatest by far of the many I spent with Tony Blair. There are so many reasons to dislike what Brexit is doing to our country. But, for me, the clear and present danger to the work done back then is right up there. Worse, do those who shout “Project Fear” when we point out the realities even care about the possible consequences of the actions they pursue? It is hard to see that they do.

A crisis potentially as great as any that our country has faced in our lifetime – and parliament sits idle. A prime minister for whom politics has always been a game, and if the game requires you to lie to the Queen, then that is what you do. After all, if you got away with lies and misdemeanours during the referendum campaign, and you’ve gone on to become prime minister, why on earth, given all we know of him over many years, did anyone imagine it would be different?

In a negotiation – the hint is the verb in the noun – you negotiate. You get on planes and go places. You hit the phone incessantly. You take seemingly intractable problems and you try to solve them. When a deadline looms, you pull out the stops. You get off the campaign trail and you get to work. You write ideas on pieces of paper and seek to win agreement for those ideas. We are indebted to the brain inside foreign secretary Dominic Raab’s head for the insight that Johnson has not been able to commit any proposals to paper because they might be leaked. Call me old-fashioned, but this doesn’t strike me as a very effective foundation of our system of government.

Campaigning is easy against the hard graft of government and has Johnson not shown, every day since the poor diddums was thwarted in his plan to get an election, that all he can do is campaign? A creature of government he is not. Yet it is precisely the huge disjunction between the job he is meant to be doing – leading a government at a time of national crisis – and the activities in which he is actually engaged – an election tour of Leave-inclined Labour seats – that is creating the hostility that seems to characterise most of his visits.

I salute those members of the public who have treated his trips to the north of England with the contempt they deserve. In calling him out on lies, and chasing him out of their towns, hopefully they are helping him to understand that being prime minister involves more than campaign visits and slick social media films to say how well they went. And eventually the Tories might get the message that their stereotypical view of northerners as angry Brexiteers who can be won over with a few promises of higher future spending causes offence, because it takes them for fools.

Our event was in the Ulster Hall. Last year, Bill Clinton stood there to receive the Freedom of Belfast. His message – “do not give up the freedom.”

If the freedoms won through peace are lost, what a blot will scar the legacy of today’s politicians, forever. Johnson may not care that his Nigel Farage English nationalism tribute act wrecks the country, but history will. And might those Northern Ireland politicians we forever see strutting into Number 10 not be better placed seeking to get up and running the institutions for which the GFA made them responsible, not seeking to inflict on Northern Ireland a Brexit for which Northern Ireland did not vote, let alone a no-deal Brexit which will put so much progress in peril?

But there was a very clear message linking what we were doing at the People’s Vote rally to what was done back then. Ultimately, peace came to Northern Ireland because the people – from all sides – demanded it. Eventually politicians – even the most resistant to compromise – had to come to terms
with the fact that unless they did compromise they faced irrelevance
and extinction.

And so it must be with Brexit. What was striking over the weekend was to hear just how many people were saying that neither the UK government nor the DUP “speaks for me”. Final word to a young woman named Doire Finn, who was part of a youth panel I interviewed on stage. Aged 24, she was three when the GFA was signed. I asked her what she would say to a Leaver she was trying to persuade to change sides in a future referendum. Her reply was immediate, short, and brilliant. “The children of the peace process deserve better than this.” Ignore her at your peril, Mr Johnson.

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