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This chumocracy is costing our country

Allegra Stratton, Boris Johnson's former press secretary - Credit: PA

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL compares the recent resignation of the Dutch cabinet with the lack of scrutiny and accountability of our own leaders.

It is now almost a quarter of a century since I jumped the journalistic fence into frontline political combat. By the time another quarter of a century is done, assuming I survive that long, I will be 88, and my children, the oldest just seven and the youngest a baby when I started working for Tony Blair, will be well into their 50s. Yikes.

So why, beyond the fact that a pandemic which has already killed more than 100,000 in the UK, and two million worldwide, is bound to make us all think a little more about mortality, the sudden realisation of that milestone?

The answer is something that my partner Fiona said, as I was concluding one of my Instagram Live ‘Campbell’s Rambles’ as we walked the dog over Hampstead Heath. For those not on Instagram, or those who are but prefer not to listen to me first thing, it is fair to describe these as rants mainly aimed at venting my anger at us having the worst possible prime minister and cabinet at the worst possible time.

As part of one of them last week, I made the point that the political editor of the Spectator, James Forsyth, in his two recent columns for the Times, had addressed first the ‘Boris Johnson is no Donald Trump’ theme, on which I wrote here last week, and then that Johnson was just the man to deliver a great new future for the BBC.

I may disagree with both observations, but he is perfectly entitled to make them. They are exactly the kind of argument a Times reader might expect from a right of centre columnist. However, the problem for Forsyth is that in both cases, it was an argument totally at one with the message being pushed out by Number 10.

On being different to the outgoing US president, the Downing Street line was designed to persuade that despite Johnson once suggesting Trump was worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, making racist remarks about president Obama, showing wilful disregard for the Northern Ireland peace process when he signalled his willingness to break international law, and despite Brexit weakening us in the eyes of America and the world, he and Joe Biden would get on just great.

The need for soothing commentary about the BBC followed the appointment of Richard Sharp as its chairman, a Goldman Sachs banker and Tory donor, and chancellor Rishi Sunak’s second best friend, runner-up to none other than James Forsyth. Sunak was best man at Forsyth’s wedding, and they and their spouses are godparents to each other’s children.

If you think it all suggests the political/media ecosystem in the governing Tory Party is a bit too chummy and croneyistic, I think you’d have a point. And that is before you add in that at the wedding in question, Forsyth was marrying Allegra Stratton, recently appointed as Boris Johnson’s official spokeswoman, so presumably responsible for the framing of arguments such as Johnson not being Trump, and the BBC being in great hands with Sunak’s banker pal.

It was as I gently suggested Forsyth might take a sabbatical from political commentary while his best mate ran the economy and his wife ran the prime minister’s comms, that Fiona chipped in with a reminder of that very different era a quarter of a century ago.

A political journalist like me at the time, she had a side-line writing profiles about MPs and peers for The House magazine, which circulated mainly in parliament. She had interviewed every living prime minister and party leader, and dozens, hundreds of others, taking their words and then turning them into first person pieces in the voice of the politician. I too had written occasionally for the magazine, which was run by an editorial board comprising parliamentarians of all parties, and edited by Tory MP, now Lord, Patrick Cormack.

Soon after my appointment with Tony Blair was made public, Cormack contacted Fiona to say that in light of this, the magazine felt it was inappropriate for her to continue doing the profiles. While he trusted her to be professional, and fair to all sides, my position as an adviser to the then leader of the opposition might lead to others fearing a potential conflict of interest. And so her six-year association came to an end.

It sounds like something from another world, yet I make no criticism whatever of Patrick Cormack, who wanted to do his utmost to prevent even the perception of a possible conflict of interest. At the time, Forsyth and Stratton would have been in their mid-teens, at their respective private schools. I wonder if it at any point crosses their minds that there might be something just a little too incestuous about the whole set-up of which they are now part. I doubt it, because the government for which one of them works, and of which the other is broadly supportive, appears not merely unconcerned about the perception of conflict of interest; it doesn’t seem to worry much when a conflict is real and blindingly obvious.

Forgive me if I cut and paste a section of my column from last week. I am prompted to do so by Neil Kinnock, who suggested it should be repeated and circulated widely, so that we do not lose track of just how scandal-ridden the Johnson government is. It was my list of events which, had they happened on the watch of a Labour government, would have dominated the agenda for weeks and months but which, with most of our media so pliant and bent in favour of the Tories, just come and go, and leave little trace…

The multiple allegations against Robert Jenrick – his handling of Tory donor Richard Desmond’s housing development; the awarding of a regeneration grant to his constituency; his travelling between homes during lockdown; the investment fund co-founded by Jacob Rees-Mogg moving to Ireland; Rees-Mogg closing shutting down the Brexit scrutiny committee; the Priti Patel bullying report, and Johnson’s decision to junk the code on ministerial standards; the many allegations raised against Tory- and Leave- donating firms securing large pandemic contracts.

Dido Harding and the billions spaffed on test and trace. The venture capitalist vaccine supremo married to a Treasury minister, now replaced by another Tory minister. Leak inquiries that lead the news when they are announced, never to be followed up again. The Brexit campaign law-breaking. Russian interference in the referendum and our life and national politics now.

Johnson stuffing the House of Lords with donors and cronies, including in defiance of the independent commission on appointments. Jennifer Arcuri. The many loose ends arising from Dominic Cummings’ time in No 10. Stanley Johnson’s repeated breaches of rules. The ignored Sage advice. The missed Cobra meetings. Hand-shaking. Cheltenham. Three late lockdowns. Schools fiasco. Christmas farce. Care home infection (false narrative ring of steel). False claims re new hospitals…

I forgot to mention the school meals fiasco, and is there anyone on earth surprised to read that the boss of the company that sent out the sub-standard food packages for children, who stepped down last month, was a Tory donor? But yet again, it barely registered. Something has gone very wrong with our media that so much of it appears to see its job as being an echo chamber of the government message, and fair slabs of it more like full-on cheer leaders. When the government wanted drum-banging about fishing during the Brexit talks, they got it. Now that fisheries reality is hitting the fisheries fantasy buffers, and real lives are being affected, how weird that it is getting less, not more, profile and debate?

It was remarkable to see the Dutch cabinet resign en masse over a scandal for which ministers had not been directly responsible, and which on the surface appeared less scandalous than issues that barely register on the UK government and media ethical and moral compass. Had Jenrick, Priti Patel, or Gavin Williamson been Dutch, they would have been goners several times over by now.

Yet the only high profile resignation was that of Cummings. Not, however, because of any Brexit campaign transgressions, or the chaos in government he caused, but, according to reports, because he was rude about Johnson’s girlfriend… who is a friend of Allegra, married to James, big pal of Rishi, whose mate Richard now runs the BBC, and who said this of the TV drama, Roadkill, starring Hugh Laurie: “In producing those four episodes of fiction, with Conservative villains, that was a partial view that could influence people in the way they view the Conservative Party.”

He really shouldn’t worry. The real thing is far worse than the fiction, but thanks to the chumocracy, most of it goes unnoticed.

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