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The prime minister’s greatest coronavirus challenge is being totally honest with the public – and himself

Prime minister Boris Johnson speaking at a news conference inside 10 Downing Street. Picture: PA - Credit: PA

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL argues that Boris Johnson, like his former boss Tony Blair, must become far more visible – and honest – during this health crisis of epic proportions.

A few weeks ago, when the only Corona we had ever heard of was a beer or a cigar, I was out walking the dog with my daughter, and we were chatting about the state of the world. Grace and I, that is. The dog, Skye, is hugely intelligent, but doesn’t chat much.

I’d just read a book about Auschwitz, and I was wondering whether I would be capable of the resilience required to survive incarceration in such a place and then, if I did, to emerge from it and be able to face the world and build a future. I was then halfway through The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes’ epic account of the transportation of British and Irish prisoners to Australia in the late 18th century, which likewise had me wondering – and doubting – if I would have been strong enough to be able to endure the privations, humiliations, sufferings and injustice that poured out of every page. To be absolutely frank, I am not sure I would have survived the journey.

‘I reckon you would,’ Grace said. ‘I reckon the survival instinct would kick in.’ I remained unsure. Venturing into middle-aged old fartery, I further said that I reckoned Grace’s generation might find it tougher still to deal with real existential challenge. She agreed.

My parents’ generation – my mum and dad were both in their late teens when the Second World War broke out – was the last in the UK to have to confront a challenge of that magnitude. Since then, there have been plenty of ups and downs – economic, social, political, military, health, environmental, terrorist – but nothing in the same category as a world war, a civil war, religious or political revolution, or the Black Death, which killed tens of millions in the 14th century, among them more than a third of all Europeans.

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I said to Grace that as I get closer to pensionable age, I have become more conscious of how improbable it should be that mine might be the first generation to live an entire life without something on a par with one of the above. During the fight against Brexit – remember that? – my concern switched between the political triumph of populism leading to the destruction of European solidarity with a traditional European repeat of history (war), or catastrophic climate change, as being the likeliest intruders into an otherwise largely lucky period.

But maybe it is Covid-19. It is certainly global. It has done something rarely achieved by anyone or anything in these times of media proliferation, bubbles and echo chambers – gone from zero awareness to universal awareness (and impact) in a matter of weeks. It has gone to the top of the agenda of virtually every major organisation in the world, governments, public services, businesses, councils, charities, and virtually every conversation in the world too.

The economic impact is already big, and risks growing as exponentially as the virus. If I just think of my own world… a lot of my professional work is public speaking and last week the bulk of speeches in my diary for the weeks ahead were cancelled. The travel and airline industry gets the headlines, but the events, exhibitions and conferences industry is going to be among the hardest hit.

Then if I look at my children… Grace is a stand-up comedian currently in the middle of a nationwide tour. Normally she is hoping as many people as possible turn up for her shows; right now she is hoping her audiences don’t fall on the high side of whatever becomes defined as a mass gathering. And she won’t be surprised if the whole tour gets scrapped.

My younger son Calum has spent the last two years working on a film on sport and disability, the release of which has been planned to coincide with the Paralympic Games in Tokyo – which may or may not take place.

My elder son Rory has his own business, working in football data and analytics. He has lots of data, but right now, no football, and therefore little opportunity to apply what he knows.

That is just one family, and I know every other family in the country will have similar stories, similar worries. The funeral of a close friend, former Mirror colleague Syd Young, has been postponed. Plenty of weddings may go the same way. Whether we get the virus or not, we are all impacted by it, and, in terms of the overall effect, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

One of the planned speeches, at one of the now cancelled conferences, was about crisis management. In the briefing call a couple of weeks ago, the organisers asked me to provide a definition of ‘crisis’. I said: ‘An event or situation that threatens to overwhelm and even destroy you or your organisation unless the right decisions are taken.’

It is as a result of that definition that I limit the number of crises experienced in a decade with Tony Blair to around five: foot and mouth; the fuel protests of around the same time, the turn of the century; the Kosovo conflict; September 11; and the wars which followed it, especially Iraq. The global financial crisis, after my time, was exactly that. There were hundreds of episodes and events described as crises, but few that really were, at least by the definition above.

Also, the second part of the definition – ‘unless the right decisions are taken’ – is every bit as important as the first. Just as Blair, when fighting the election in 2001 on the prosaic slogan ‘schools and hospitals first’ did not expect his second term to be defined by September 11 and its consequences, so Boris Johnson did not imagine his ‘get Brexit done’ election would be followed so soon after by the coronavirus pandemic. Part of crisis management is adapting quickly and effectively to new, unexpected realities.

I wrote here recently about Johnson’s seeming indifference to the consequences of the recent floods. He has been more visible on Covid-19, but given its scale, not that much. It might seem odd that someone like me, who has never hidden my belief that Johnson is not fit to be prime minister, should be calling on him to be more visible. But whether I like it or not, he is the PM, and whether he likes it or not, that means being highly visible (and preferably effective) in moments of national crisis.

It is absolutely right to let experts who would normally be operating behind the scenes take centre stage during a crisis such as this one. However, the PM must become expert too, and be across the same detail as they are. The advisers advise, but ultimately ministers and above all the PM must make the decisions, and explain them.

In a crisis as fluid and fast-moving as this one, a proper communications strategy is one in which the PM takes the public into his confidence about the process and the reasoning behind his thinking. He has to decide, execute but also narrate a strategy. Both as a journalist and as a politician Johnson has never been one for complexity. In common with most populists, he likes to pretend to people that life is not as complicated as ‘they’ (a loose concept which can be used to dismiss any number of opponent) would have you believe; that everything can be summed up in a snappy phrase… take back control… get Brexit done… wash your hands…

We already know that Brexit is a lot more complicated than the slogans which won it; we know too that far from being oven-ready, Brexit is yet to be fully cooked, and only ideology is preventing him from admitting the inevitable truth, that EU and UK institutions so focused on the virus crisis are unlikely to have the time, energy or personnel to get an exit deal completed without an extension to the transition process.

The current crisis will play out in all manner of unexpected ways. He has to be honest with the country about that. He would do himself no harm if he admitted that it is impossible to know with confidence how bad things will get, how many will die, and whether the NHS will be able to cope. Only if he is honest about the situation will he secure public confidence and understanding for the decisions made to seek to improve it.

I’m off now for the only meeting of the day which has survived the cull of my diary for today… on the launch strategy for my next book, Better to Live, due out in mid-May when the crisis may well be at a peak. There is an obvious temptation to delay it, but my instinct is to keep calm and carry on, even if most of the events around the book end up being cancelled. After all, it is about how to survive depression, and I fear help on that front may be needed more than ever.

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