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Why don’t more people care about the disaster in Downing Street?

Health Secretary Matt Hancock. PA Video/PA Wire - Credit: PA

As the country reaches its fourth anniversary since Britain left the EU, ALASTAIR CAMPBELL reveals his despair at the current political landscape.

Happy birthday New Eu… Happy birthday New Eu… Happy birthday New European… Happy birthday to you …

And that, dear reader of the 200th edition of one of the few good things to emerge from Brexit, is about as celebratory as you will get from me today. I am in the middle of what might be termed a downer. I never know for sure why it happens. It would be odd, though, given how big a role politics has played in my life, if the political environment was not at least a factor.

The people closest to you always want to find a simple explanation. So last Thursday, day two or three of the slide, at around 5.30pm, my daughter Grace walks in, sees what I am doing, and snaps at me: ‘Dad, in the mood you’re in, that is an act of self-harm. Just stop it now and do something that might actually make you feel better.’

Had she stumbled upon me whacking a needle into a vein? No, for this is something I have never done and given my addictive personality, thank heavens for that. Was I raising a bottle of Scotch to my lips? This too is not something Grace has ever seen me do, for I have not touched the hard stuff since the spring of 1986, long before she was born, apart from one dramatic moment at the time of the Hong Kong handover when what I thought was apple juice turned out to be whisky, which I spat all over a Chinese diplomat as soon as I raised the glass to my lips. No, nor was there a razor in sight. All I was doing, to provoke such concern in my daughter, was watching Matt Hancock on the TV.

The health secretary. Self-harm. Of course she was right. What good was it going to do me, mid-plunge, to watch yet another episode of Bullshit Bingo? ‘Ramp up’. ‘Strain sinews’. ‘Work night and day’. ‘Putting arms around you’. ‘Ring of steel round social care’. ‘Led by the science’. ‘Follow the science’. ‘Follow the plan’. ‘Unprecedented’. ‘Whatever it takes’. ‘Sadly died’. ‘Thoughts and prayers’. ‘Great question!’ And now he is putting a cherry on Dido’s cake ffs! The ‘game-changing app’, one more fiasco in an encyclopaedia of them, part of a test, track and trace system that was going to be ‘world-class’, only it had crashed and burned before lift-off, and there he was, the man whose soul must be dying a perpetual death, presenting it as part of some carefully thought through plan with the tech giants of the world, a pack of lies which fell apart pretty soon after, but by then they had moved onto the next set of lies and so nobody seemed terribly bothered.

I think that might be part of the reason for the downer. So many people don’t seem to be quite as bothered as I am that we have a government that is not just serially incompetent, and which has failed on pretty much every aspect of crisis management, but has given up any basic adherence to one of the central tenets of our parliamentary democracy, that ministers strive to tell the truth. I can put the positive case for a government action or a set of stats as well as the next guy. It used to be part of my job. But I think the journalists who covered the thousands of briefings I did would recognise that I stayed rooted in the real world; and anyway, had I strayed an inch from the real world, they, and the Tories, would have been up in arms. ‘Spin’ became the means by which our opponents sought to delegitimise pretty much anything we said or did. This lot don’t just spin. They lie with an effortlessness that has long since crossed the frontiers of shame, with no sign of a return ticket.

Let me just take a few examples from recent days that would have had the media of the pre-post-truth era salivating, and opposition MPs piling in like their lives depending on it: Johnson denying Keir Starmer’s assertion that child poverty had risen. He lied in the Commons. He does it regularly. It used to be a resigning offence. Nobody bats an eyelid. Robert Jenrick and the Richard Desmond property development: I think in our day it would have been a ‘-gate’ by now. Whether Desmond-gate or Jenrick-gate I don’t know but it would definitely have been a gate. We had -gates galore that raised a lot fewer questions than this one.

Oliver Dowden using a Number 10 public health briefing to attack Keir Starmer. Media eyelids batted – close to zero. The demolition of DFID without cabinet discussion, or any regard for major implications for people working all over the world. How many ‘sofa government’ specials would something like that have sparked?

The revelation that huge sums of public money are being used day after day, night after night, for polling that clearly seems to be of a political nature. I think we would have had a whole series of BBC Panorama specials on that one. Then I wonder what the New Labour era media would have done with the non-published Russia report, the non-constituted intelligence committee, the non-explained Johnson holidays, the lies told about his health when he and others in Number 10 were ill, the use of the garden for the Cummings’ press conference, the attorney general sticking her oar in while a police investigation was going on. I wonder whether – spoiler alert, the answer is no – if the number of children fathered by any previous PM had been a matter of conjecture, the media would just have let the matter drop.

I think about the time and effort we had to dispense endlessly dealing with questions from MPs and journalists about who had been to Chequers, who paid, the front page ‘furores’ over a new bed or a new sink in Number 10. Cherie-gates galore. Yet Johnson can separate from a sick wife, get together with a new woman not much older than some of his kids, and again the media eyelids remain largely unbatted. I mean OK, times change. But this is bloody weird.

So when it comes to spaffing almost a million quid on painting a plane so he can feel better landing alongside better and bigger planes flown for other leaders, the answer to the question ‘why does he do it?’ is because he thinks he can. A bit of a fuss. But it doesn’t last beyond a few cartoons.

Now I know you’re dying to know if I turned off the telly under orders from Grace. As it happens I did what addicts often do. I put off the decision till tomorrow. And unlike many addicts I stuck to my word when tomorrow came. I went for a walk with my son Calum while Gavin Williamson did his latest Frank Spencer impersonation (Younger readers may require Google.) By the weekend however, I was back to self-harming, albeit unwittingly.

We decided to watch the new Hillary Clinton documentary series. It was fascinating, because she is, and so is Bill, and they both gave genuinely personal and revealing interviews. But it was depressing too because you knew how the movie ended. Trump wins. She loses. And don’t let anyone say it never makes a difference who is in power. What came through was how Trump simply changed the rules of engagement, and she and her team didn’t know how to deal with it. They were used to tough campaigning. But lies as a matter of course, insults instead of argument, Russians encouraged to interfere, the manufacture of non-stories turned by Fox News and social media into major issues,
ventilated by Trump’s mastery of the airwaves; it was like they had turned up for a boxing match only to discover the other side was using machine guns instead of fists.

There is a really powerful part where she is talking about the TV debate when Trump was literally stalking her on the stage, snarling and snorting. Over film of the event, she is going over what was going through her mind, worrying that however she reacted he would somehow turn it to his advantage. The theme came up again and again. How do you deal with someone for whom there are no rules that cannot be broken in pursuit of his goals? If what was happening in Kentucky just now had been in the developing world – the reduction of polling sites from 3,700 to 200, so that in the county with most black voters, 600,000 will need to use the same station – there would have been condemnation from first world election observers. We will see worse, should he lose the election, in the efforts he makes to stay. Couldn’t happen here? You’d like to think so. But Labour have the same dilemma as Hillary faced. There are no rules Johnson will not break if he can and if it helps him. And the lesson of Trump, Orban, Putin and others, is that you get away with as many little things as you can early on, so you can get away with bigger things later. What was it Michelle Obama said? ‘When they go low, we go high.’ It’s the noble, principled way. But they lost. At some point Labour is going to have to make a big decision. Queensbury rules? Or knuckle dusters? Knowing they will be judged by far harsher standards, whatever they decide. Once the gloom lifts, I will try to turn my mind to some answers.

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