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How we ended up with ‘unserious people handling serious issues’

Former Labour minister Douglas Alexander - Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Let me mention two political figures, one of whom, Douglas Alexander, you will likely have heard of; the other, Brendan Boyle, of whom more later, may be less familiar to a British audience.

Douglas Alexander was a Labour MP, first elected in 1997, who fell victim to the SNP surge in 2015. A long-time strategic advisor to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, he served in various ministerial roles, including secretary of state at the now abolished Department for International Development, whose scandalous demise means we have to rely upon the word, values and international commitment of Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab to ensure the UK pulls its weight in helping the poorest people in the world. So farewell to all that.

Douglas and I go back a long way. We have broadly similar political outlooks and antennae though we have also had a few disagreements from time to time, most recently his chastisements that I am far less hostile to the SNP and their central cause than he thinks I should be. We see each other less than we did. Indeed, pre the Covid restrictions, funerals tended to be the only events where most of the New Labour team got together in the same place, and now even that can’t happen. So when I got an invite from Pinsent Masons law firm to listen in to a ‘virtual retreat’ of its partners, at which Douglas was to give an overview of politics home and abroad, I accepted.

It was on one level invigorating, for it was a veritable tour de force on the American presidential elections, the Brexit negotiations, climate change, Covid, the future of Labour, Scottish independence and much else besides. It was rich in detail, strong on analysis but also with ideas about how to challenge the populist virus doing so much damage to politics generally, and more specifically to the countries which have imbibed it.

It was a reminder of how smart he is, how much he reads, how closely he follows trends and developments. When, in the Q and A, he got a specific question about South Africa, I thought ‘oh, here we go, he might have to go into politico-waffle mode’ here. Far from it. He was right across the detail, of political and economic development there and elsewhere in Africa. Ultimately however, I found the whole thing depressing, for what it said about the standard of ministers today. I could not think of a single current government minister, with the possible exception of Rishi Sunak, who could get even close to the kind of depth and reach that Douglas was displaying. Certainly not Johnson, who currently appears incapable of mounting an argument that goes beyond the latest three-word slogan. Actually now we are down to one word – Moonshot – this from a government whose record on Covid would make me fear they would not know how to book a bloody Uber, let alone land a man on the moon, or Covid-test an entire nation.

Douglas also singled out Sunak’s Treasury as the one part of the state’s armoury that had showed at least some level of competence, (though I wonder whether the recent upturn in the virus was part caused by his ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ initiative). In any event, the chancellor shines mainly by comparison with colleagues.

Raab, who only has Johnson’s tenure at the Foreign Office to thank for being viewed there as ‘the second worst foreign secretary we’ve ever had’. Priti Patel, of whom I have yet to hear a single civil servant, police officer or AN Other outside the ranks of solidly tribal Brexiteer MPs say a decent word. In the mould of Johnson, she seems to combine incompetence, nastiness, and a smug sense of superiority. It’s a lethal mix.

Michael Gove is viewed by many, not least himself, as the cleverest member of the cabinet, but it is a cleverness in playing the political and media ‘game’. His recent starring role in the defence of the indefensible, the breach of international law as their latest Brexit gambit, underlined his unmooring from principle when a political expediency is at stake. Gove, who previously served as lord chancellor, has taken an oath always to uphold the rule of law. He has broken it. Because the game of the day demanded that he do so. And so far as he is concerned, that is fine.

Even Michael Howard has spoken out against it, for heaven’s sake! And anyone and everyone who was actually involved in making the Good Friday Agreement, as opposed to those, like Johnson and Gove, who willed its death even before it was born, have warned of the direct risks it faces from their words and deeds. The joint article from John Major and Tony Blair alone ought to change the mind of any Tory MP prepared to back this latest episode in the serial of Johnson-Gove Brexit lies, excuses and shifts of blame.

Now meet Brendan Boyle, at 43 a decade younger than Douglas Alexander, and physically not dissimilar. Both are fresh-faced, with thick but tidily kept dark hair, and the ‘boyish good looks’ that profile writers tend to award to anyone who looks younger than they are. The son of Irish immigrants, Boyle is a Democrat congressman from Philadelphia. He came across my radar in an interview for Channel 4 News after Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis told parliament said that yes, the government was breaking international law in a specific and limited way.

Boyle was speaking after Gove had publicly rejected a demand by the EU that the UK government re-commit itself to standing by an agreed international treaty which, in the pre-Johnson era, would not even have been a question, let alone one with the answer Gove gave. Of course Lewis was not on the programme because Channel 4 is on the list of media outlets covered by the Johnson-Cummings boycott which, as I said here last week, exposes as entirely hypocritical their stated commitment to free speech. But what became very clear very quickly was that Boyle, an American, knew more about the politics of Ireland, and the workings of the Good Friday Agreement, than any member of the government I had heard on the subject. It was so refreshing, after all the sloganised rubbish and legal weaselling that had come from Tory mouths, to hear someone who actually understood the agreement, and cared deeply about the peace process.

My former Number 10 colleague Jonathan Powell, who has forgotten more about the peace process than Johnson has ever troubled himself to learn, pointed out that at least five different reasons were given for breaking international law on the Northern Ireland protocol – and all were bogus. The most contemptible was the claim that this was about saving the Good Friday Agreement, when in truth it threatens it by resurrecting the need for a hard border to protect the EU single market. As Boyle put it: “I give them credit for saying it with a straight face. Nobody believes it. It is sheer nonsense.”

Then there were the Johnson claims that ‘nobody realised it would create a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK’ and that the whole process had been too rushed. People who actually know what they are on about had been united in warning him about the customs border, which is why so many MPs had asked him to slow the pace. And by the weekend, we had a new bogus reason, trotted out like so many of his lies in an article for the Telegraph, that the Withdrawal Agreement he had signed, and hailed as a triumph for him and for the country, was in fact an EU plot to break up the UK.

Of course the real reason for this car crash was to serve as a distraction from the total mess on Covid, and to create a fresh fight with the EU in the hope it appeals to pro-Brexit supporters who can indulge once more in the joy of being at war with Europe, and feed their pre-programmed belief that it shows we will be ‘better off without them’. Which we won’t. But by the time this ‘strategy’ blows a hole in the planned US-UK trade deal, they will have another distraction and someone else to blame – hopefully (say I, not they, so Trumpian have they become) president Joe Biden.

Not just Brendan Boyle, but more significantly house speaker Nancy Pelosi, mindful of the US role as a guarantor of an agreement that ensures no hard border in Ireland, made clear that if the UK went ahead with breaking it, then they can say goodbye to the trade deal.

These are serious people looking at serious issues in a serious way. Boyle’s interview, and Douglas’s presentation, were a sad reminder that our current government is headed by, and largely populated by, unserious people handling serious issues in a way that can have many descriptions applied to it, but ‘serious’ is not one of them. The consequences, however, are all too serious. Deadly serious. Yet they really do not give a damn, provided the pro-Brexit rags stay on board, their new supporters buy the line it is all Europe’s fault, and new targets for blame emerge over time.

“This is a fragile peace,” said Boyle. “I don’t know why anyone in their rights minds would do this.” Indeed.

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