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Fighting back in the Age of Post Shame

Anti-Brexit protesters in Westminster. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL says the recent wave of street protests is a response to the rise of shameless politics.

It was hardly the best look for Boris Johnson, speaking above the din of “Stop the Coup” from Whitehall protesters as he struggled to bring peace to his party. He is going to have to get used to it.

So what was it about Johnson sending Jacob Rees-Mogg to Balmoral to ask the Queen to prorogue parliament that provided the spark that had people taking to the streets, including in large numbers in some highly unexpected places?

Brexit has always been a project of the right, for the right, by the right – why only now has the left started to mobilise properly against it? The Brexit story has long been one of constitutional trickery, dubious legality, and a culture of lies. Why now has middle England shoulder-shrugging turned to angry activism in Cheltenham, Stroud, Shrewsbury?

Partly, it is a question of timing. With the October 31 ‘do or die’ deadline looming and the party conferences upon us, the ability of parliament to debate, scrutinise, and hold to account a new unelected-by-the-people prime minister on his Brexit plans was already limited. Prorogation limits it further.

Partly, it was the look and feel of the whole thing, an Old Etonian Leader of the Commons sent by an Old Etonian prime minister to a Scottish castle to pressurise the monarch to take part in the constitutional trickery. The Queen is one of the few people in our national life whose reputation has travelled in an upward direction in modern times, as most in public life have seen theirs go south. I sense a lot of people, monarchist or republican, Remainer or Leaver, felt angry that she was being dragged into the whole thing at all.

But above all, I think the anger in the public reaction was about character; the character of Boris Johnson, and the character of what our politics has become. In saying this, I make no apology for returning to the same theme as last week – the fact that we now have a prime minister who feels no compunction about lying. That this includes lying about, and indeed to, the Queen, offends a lot of decent people. The blatant misrepresentation about the reasons for the prorogation, the pretence that it had nothing to do with Brexit, that it was a normal, everyday piece of government business – this was not merely disingenuous; it took people for fools.

On Monday night, I took part in a Channel 5 programme, in which Jeremy Vine asked the hundred or so people in the audience whether they believed Johnson’s explanation. One hand went up. It belonged to Tory MP David Davis.

We saw more of the same dishonesty from Johnson when he wasted the nation’s time with Monday’s address to it in Downing Street, which added nothing to the sum of human knowledge. Yet even as he was saying he didn’t want an election, journalists were being briefed by his team on how he intended to get one. Even as his words on the importance of his negotiations with the EU were being penned, the man who helped pen them, Dominic Cummings, was reportedly telling a meeting in Number 10 that the negotiations were a “sham”.

I am aware, not least from ‘irony claxon alert’ tweets whenever I address the theme of truth in politics, that Johnson is not the first prime minister to be accused of lying. Tony Bliar and all that. Iraq. Dossier. 45 minutes. Don’t worry, I can take it… and can also, and do, point to the public and other inquiries which cleared us of accusations which nonetheless, in today’s more-polarised-than-ever politics continue to be made.

Indeed, despite the nastiness there was something mildly amusing about the woman who accosted me as I ended an interview with CNN on Westminster’s College Green, as Paul Mason spoke to the first anti-prorogation demo behind us. “Thanks for all you’re doing on Brexit,” she smiled, then the smile faded to snarl as she added: “But you’re still a f**king war criminal, and I’m glad they kicked you out of the party.” Have a nice day.

There was little point trying to explain to her that Tony Blair took all his responsibilities as prime minister seriously, chief among them accountability to parliament, and truthfulness at the despatch box and anywhere else where his words could be taken down and used against him. It happens to be true though, and those who worked with him felt obliged to operate by the same principles.

It is evidence not just of our big majorities, but above all of how well organised right wing propaganda has been long before Brexit, that TB was constantly attacked for holding parliament in contempt. I can see no circumstances in which he would have done what Johnson and Rees-Mogg did last week, and while yes, sometimes you have to be subtle in how you deploy an argument, he would not have been able to make the claim that it had ‘nothing to do with Brexit’ with a straight face… “let’s keep it real, shall we?” he would have said to anyone who had dared even to suggest a misrepresentation so vast.

There has been something frankly stomach-churning having to watch and hear a succession of cabinet ministers seeking to pretend that their previous public statements against prorogation are entirely compatible with total support for what emerged from the Rees-Mogg away-day flight to Aberdeen.

Michael Gove, Amber Rudd, Matt Hancock, Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan, Andrea Leadsom, Liz Truss… again, they are taking the public for fools if they really expect us to believe that their conversion from ‘prorogation bad’ to ‘prorogation good’ is motivated by anything other than a preference for the black leather on the back seat of a ministerial car over the green leather on the backbenches in the Commons.

Throw in the fact that they had been busily been denying prorogation would take place, shortly before it did, and you have confirmation that we now have a government fully representative of the post-truth, post-shame political world.

Post-truth: ‘Johnson is close to getting a new and better deal…’ How so, given he has not put forward a single new proposal to parliament, to Brussels, to anyone else? Post-shame: it will be parliament’s fault, or Europe’s fault if these negotiations fail.

Post-truth: the system for dealing with EU nationals living and working here is going really well. Post-shame: they have forgotten about Windrush already.

Post-truth: the Irish border will not be a problem even with no-deal. Post shame: they know this is not true, so you are left concluding they really don’t care about the peace process.

This is a new world, and it is one that bodes ill for our future, unless we stop these people in their tracks. Individually, most people feel powerless. Together, we might make a difference. It is that insight, I think, that got people onto the streets in protest. They will have included people who would normally vote Tory, but who will not vote for this Tory leader and this Tory plan.

I freely accept that Johnson is a more energetic and more ruthless campaigner than Theresa May. Doubtless dark Tory Party money is already being used to bombard Facebook users with lies, slogans and easy solutions to supplement the grotesque waste of £100 million of public money used for the ‘get ready’ campaign. But just as May discovered that the British public was not inhaling the propaganda pumped out by the party and ventilated by the Brexit Lie Machine newspapers when she decided to go to the country, so might he.

If you’ve made your name as a journalist by making up stories about Europe, been sacked both by an editor and a party leader for lying, won a referendum with a huge lie on the side of the bus, and lied consistently in and out of government since, you should not be surprised if the country, among them those who share your desire to see Brexit delivered, do not believe a word you say. This is not a good starting place for a man whose entire strategy, devoid of detail or explanation, appears to be – ‘trust me, I can get this done’.

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