This episode has exposed ministers’ lethal mix of dreadful values as people, and their utter uselessness, says ALASTAIR CAMPBELL.
In case you didn’t know, I play the bagpipes. I have played a lot in lockdown, most days in fact, but most enjoyably, for eight Thursdays in a row, out in the street, at 8pm, as part of the clap for carers. Perhaps it is because we are so close to the Royal Free Hospital in north west London that we seem to have a lot of NHS people in our neck of the woods; doctors over the road, a nurse next door, and Chris Hopson, CEO of NHS Providers, a few doors down.
The first Thursday I played, my daughter Grace spotted our next door neighbour, nurse Matilda ‘Sissy’ Bridge, at the end of the road, arriving home from work at the Whittington Hospital, where she is an asthma nurse. I piped her up the street, and the footage Grace filmed on her phone went viral.
Since then, I’ve had requests from other neighbours, to play tunes as varied as Highland Cathedral and Hava Nagila, Happy Birthday and Danny Boy, and others with musical instruments have also come out to play, including trumpet, trombone and vuvuzela. It has been good fun, the numbers have stayed high, and a street that has always had a good sense of community has seen that spirit strengthened in the unity shown for a great national institution.
Last Thursday, however, was the last time I shall do it. Not because I don’t still love the NHS and admire what they have done to make up for the inadequacies of the government, whose early indifference and sustained incompetence helped to make the UK one of the hardest hit countries in the world. But because that government now uses these moments to seek a political benefit that is neither appropriate nor deserved. These have been moments for the whole country to come together, left or right, Labour or Tory, Liberal or Nationalist, Scottish, English, Welsh, Northern Irish, young or old, rich or poor. Because we have all been in it together, and we all want to thank those at the frontline.
However, what the Boris Johnson/Dominic Cummings episode shows is that we are not all in it together at all. The lions on the frontline have been exploited and abused by the donkeys in Downing Street, who have decided that the rules need not apply to them.
This sorry affair is a lot more about Johnson than Cummings. But it has also exposed what a weak bunch of men and women sit around that cabinet table.
How pathetic was it, to see them one after the other trot out their cut and paste tweets telling their followers that Cummings was a family man doing nothing more than care for his child? ‘He obeyed the rules, end of story,’ chirruped Oliver Dowden, who in Thatcher’s day would have been lucky to have made a shortlist for candidates in an unwinnable seat, and now lords it over media, culture and sport.
How totally lacking in any sense of pride or self-respect must Grant Shapps and Gavin Williamson have been to face the media without having the first clue about whether the lines they had been fed were true or false?
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I know the current situation is more serious than some silly photo-stunt, but as minister after minister debased themselves this week, I remember the fine words of then cabinet minister Charles Clarke when I asked if he might dress up as Santa Claus … ‘oh f**k off, Alastair’.
I suspect that after Cummings’ car crash press conference in the Downing Street garden (which was a bit like giving Monica Lewinsky the Oval Office to put her side of the story), if Johnson had asked Dominic Raab, Matt Hancock, Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Grant Shapps and Gavin Williamson to dress up as the seven dwarves, they would happily have done so. He would then have donned his best Snow White outfit and they would have gone round to Durham Dom’s to be given the exact words for the tweets they had to put out saying how he had answered all the horrid journalists’ questions really really well.
I think the country might have been able to get over the arrogance and the hypocrisy of Cummings, until the weekend still relatively unknown outside the political and media world, had people felt this was at least a government on top of the crisis.
But they don’t. How can they, when we are so high up the world league table for death, and when day after day ministers have been telling us that they are ‘ramping up’, whether that be on PPE, tests, hiring tracers – when Priti Patel was allowed out, she even had the head of the Border Force along to tell us they were ‘ramping up’ on communications. If they keep ramping at this rate, Grant Shapps will have that air bridge he wants.
How can they, when they know that so many of the excess deaths were likely caused by Johnson’s laziness; his indifference, as he tried to pretend his and Brexit Britain’s exceptionalism would see us through without any of the drastic measures those ghastly panicky foreigners were taking; his negligence, boasting about shaking hands with people at a hospital treating coronavirus patients on what we now learn was the day the hapless scientists were urging the government to ask the country to stop shaking hands at all; his cowardice in hiding away from questioning and scrutiny; his lying, as with his insulting claims of ‘apparent success’ as we overtook Spain and Italy for deaths and infections; and the performance of ministers, at best average, at worst awful?
But what this episode has done has exposed the lethal mix of their dreadful values as people, and their utter uselessness as ministers.
Johnson and Cummings are feted by their colleagues (though Cummings in particular is hated by many of the other political advisers he treats like dirt) because they were at least seen as winners. Brexit. Beating Jeremy Corbyn, and both supposedly reliant on their ability to read the public mood.
Key to it too, a success which always amazed me given their backgrounds and lifestyle, was their ability to present themselves as fighting for the people against some mythical elite.
That has gone, and is never coming back. It was not just that Cummings did what he did. It was that he and Johnson could not, and cannot still, really see what the fuss was about.
The fuss is that it exposed as nothing else could the absolute lie that we are all in this together; it shows that far from them being for the people against the elite, they are the elite, and they have contempt for the people.
‘Who cares about good looks? It’s a question of doing the right thing.’
Perhaps that short statement by Cummings, uttered contemptuously to journalists trying to ask him legitimate questions as he packed a bike into a car, (he’s a dad, had you heard?, loves his son, not like you plebs) did as much damage as anything the seven dwarves have said in their many hours of Covid briefings.
Anyone who saw that, heard that, and felt they had been doing the right thing in staying home, whatever their special circumstances with regard to children, parents, siblings or anyone else in their lives, was entitled to feel revolted by these people’s sense of entitlement; and, as Tory MPs are discovering in their inboxes, many did.
This cut through to people, in a way many so-called Westminster bubble stories do not, because virtually everyone has a real life story of being unable to do something important they wanted to do, or see people they want to see.
Some have been heart-breaking. One, of a woman posting her attempts to console her dying father as they spoke by videophone, I could not watch to the end; any more than I could bear to look at the photo of the young boy buried by undertakers because his infected family could not be there.
In comparison, anything I have had happen to me is as nothing. Yet let me just give you three little examples… a close friend in hospital, not with Covid, but neither we nor his family can visit; a baby born to my sister’s son, the first of a new generation in the family, and only his parents have been able to see him; and two friends who died and whose funerals only their spouses and children could attend.
One, former Daily Mirror colleague Syd Young, was more than a friend. Twenty years older than me, he was a mentor, who was also a great support at the lowest point of my life, when I had a breakdown in the 1980s. I was lucky enough to see him in hospital in Bristol just before he died, but then lockdown came, and only his three children could go to the funeral. His wife Jackie was self-isolating, abiding by rules, and could not go. Awful.
Another friend, farmer George Mackie, died some weeks later. His funeral too could only be attended by his wife, journalist and former Treasury adviser Catherine MacLeod, and their two sons. For the first time ever, I played a funeral lament virtually, in the garden of my own home, for George.
The sheet music you can see here is a tune I wrote, George Mackie’s Highland Caps – as a young man he played with the Highland rugby club, their only player to be capped by Scotland.
I am now writing another tune, a jig, Johnson’s farewell to Durham Dom. It will come, though part of me thinks it is better he stays now, as it will help hasten the end of the lot of them.
I got a little tired this week of people asking me if Tony Blair would have sacked me if I had done what Cummings did. First, because I would never have done it, nor anything like it. But also, if for some inexplicable reason I had, I would have sacked myself, to save him the trouble.
But Johnson, like Trump, like Putin, like Orban, like Bolsonaro, thinks the rules do not apply to him and his little clique. Be warned, people, that is the kind of fight this is, and I for one have the pipes fired up ready to head wherever the battle against them takes us. If we lose that battle, this country is well and truly done, which is exactly why it has to be won.