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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: True patriotism is calling Boris Johnson out for what he is

Prime Minister Boris Johnson departs 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA. - Credit: PA

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on how Johnson is ‘gaslighting’ the British public. And how it’s not unpatriotic to say so

So, here we go… another column to write. It’s something I’ve done most of my adult life, starting with a sports column on the Tavistock Times in my first week as a trainee reporter more than 40 years ago. Even when I worked for Tony Blair, I found time to write regular columns for Tribune, and for the Burnley FC matchday programme.

I have written a column in The New European virtually every week since the paper was founded. And, since the word coronavirus replaced Brexit and football as the top two subjects of conversation, I have written more than 100 different pieces for different publications in different parts of the world. What else was I supposed to do in lockdown? (And before anyone says, you must be raking it in, many don’t pay, and those that do don’t pay like they used to!)

I did laugh on receiving via my website the other day an email from someone who asked me: ‘Is that all you f***ing do all day, sit up in your f***ing office, writing about how f***ing useless Boris Johnson is?’ He addressed me by use of a C-word that was not, I may say, C for Campbell, and signed himself off as, simply, ‘A TRUE Patriot’.

Well no, TRUE Patriot, it’s not all that I f***ing do. I am brushing up my German. I have been practising my bagpipes. I have finished a couple of books. Last week, I did a series of Zoom interviews with different people about how they have coped, mental health wise, in lockdown. I have written not just about Covid, but sport, music, culture. But yes, I confess that a fair bit of my time, I sit at my screen and set out how uniquely unfortunate the country is, to have during such a serious crisis such an unserious prime minister and such a second-rate team.

Alastair Campbell’s column in the Spanish daily El Pais. Photo: El Pais – Credit: Archant

TRUE Patriot took exception to my posting on social media the illustrations on three articles I had written for foreign papers. He felt I should be banging the drum for what a great country we are, not telling Johnny Foreigner that BoJo was ballsing everything up. Though frankly, TP – can I call you TP, or do you insist on your full name? – I think the world has in the main already made up its mind that BoJo has ballsed it up, which is why so many papers were keen to have articles on that theme.

Spain’s El Pais used an illustration almost as good as those by Chris Barker which regularly make The New European front pages works of art as well as political commentary. It was of Johnson, a red nose indicating the clownishness for which he is now globally famous, standing behind a lectern which had morphed into a coffin.

The Netherland’s NRC Handelsblad illustrated my article with more of a traditional cartoon, Johnson the overweight spiv, an emaciated, Dominic Cummings behind him. The Canadian paper, the Globe and Mail, opted for a photo of Johnson in the Commons trying, and failing, to look serious and statesmanlike.

I know I probably shouldn’t, but I couldn’t resist sending TRUE Patriot other pieces I have written.

Italy’s Il Foglio had a nice short headline, easily understood by anyone, ‘Il Coronofiasco di BoJo’. The Slovakia Spectator (no relation to the British version, whose chairman Andrew Neil and editor Fraser Nelson are yet to breathe a word publicly about the misleading article Cummings’ wife Mary Wakefield wrote about their ‘London lockdown’) went more on the positive I said about their government’s handling, than the negative about Johnson. ‘Slovakia 10 Britain 0′ was a fair assessment of the analysis I had made of their respective leaders’ respective crisis management skills and outcome.

The New Zealand Herald went for the same approach, headlining on how Jacinda Ardern, their hard-working, empathetic, hugely effective (spot the difference) prime minister, was ‘putting UK to shame’. Likewise in France, it was the comparison between their leader and ours that interested L’Express… ‘You French don’t know how lucky you are’ (to have Macron rather than Johnson in charge.) And Ethnos, in Greece, a country more used to basket-case headlines than we are, but which has had a very good crisis, topped the article with the accurate statement: ‘Johnson is a liar and incapable, Greece can walk with head high.’

Berlingske, Denmark’s main daily, ran with ‘Coronavirus has exposed Johnson as a charlatan’. Norway’s Aftenposten and Croatia’s Jutarnji picked up on my line that Johnson made me feel ashamed to be British. Which, I hate to say, he does. TRUE Patriot feels it is unpatriotic to say this. I feel it would be unpatriotic not to call out this prime minister and this government for what they are doing, as loudly and as widely as I possibly can. After all, as Le Temps in Switzerland headlined my piece for them, he is now, with Trump, Putin and Bolsonaro, one of the main ‘leaders du monde infecté’.

Having used the word ‘gaslighting’ in last week’s column, to describe how Johnson was governing, I looked up the Wikipedia definition.

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‘Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment …. Using denial, misdirection, contradiction, and misinformation, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s beliefs. Instances can range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents occurred, to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.’

So, to take a few highlights… Johnson is ‘proud’ of the government record on Covid. ‘Apparent success.’ Ring of steel around care homes. Success on PPE and testing. World-class. Dominic Cummings did nothing wrong. The Johnson/Jenrick/Desmond planning allegations are clean as a disinfected Nightingale ventilator machine. The economy will come roaring back. We are winning in the Brexit talks. This is not a racist country.

It is not just that they lie, but that lying is part of the plan. Gaslighting is now the approach at prime minister’s questions, where Johnson’s response to Keir Starmer’s serious, detailed questions is to protest that the Labour leader is not simply echoing him in saying how well everything is going. And if you have large chunks of the media willing to do exactly that, and echo anything you care to ask them to echo, then the gaslighting of the country becomes possible.

Johnson is still, at heart, a talking point newspaper columnist, and not much else. His tweets about the Churchill statue were essentially the work of the newspaper columnist not wanting to have his readers focus on Covid – yawn, yawn, 60,000 dead, heard it all before, Churchill is always good copy… No.10’s weekend sortie into the issue of transgender rights was the columnist playing into the row caused by a cultural icon, JK Rowling, and so playing games he has enjoyed playing all his journalistic career, exploiting division, making vulnerable people feel more vulnerable.

That was the Sunday Times taken care of. The Mail on Sunday had another nice, easy, tossed off talking point… ‘Johnson to take control of 2 metres!’ This was the ‘leaders lead’ talking point. It is evidence of how little he does lead that it should be viewed as news, but evidence too of how lucky he is to have so many newspapers whose pages he can fill with his musings and rambles.

I have never been a prime minister, but I have worked with people who are. Of all the skills needed for the role, column writing would be relatively low down the list. The tragedy is that it is at the top of the list of skills belonging to the current occupant of No.10.

On Monday, he wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph, his old trivialist stamping ground. He was back on statues and Churchill and saying that, rather than implement past reviews on race, we should have another one. The headline was ‘Rather than tear some people down, we should build others up’.

Even with slabs of metal, he is on the levelling-up theme. That really is quality gaslight work. It is all he is fit for, and it is shaming that this is who and what we have as prime minister at this time. True patriotism means realising the dangers, and fighting till he’s gone, however hard, however long it takes.

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