It would be little surprise if Boris Johnson turned out to be the ‘chatty rat’ the leak inquiry has yet to identify.
Anyone who knows me also knows that I have something of an addiction to my phone. Nor is this a new thing. As far back as 1997, journalist John Williams, who was with us on the road covering the Labour election campaign, wrote: “If it’s true that mobile phones cause brain tumours, Alastair Campbell is a goner.”
Back then, trying to help Labour win an election, in the days before we had email on the move, let alone WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and all the other myriad points of connection, the phone was mainly stuck to my ear, or used for texting. These days, it is mainly stuck to my fingers and thumbs, and every week, when I get the message informing me of my average daily use, I tell myself I will cut it down next week… and then I don’t.
Once that election campaign was won, and Tony Blair was prime minister, with me and other members of his opposition team installed in Number 10, lots of things changed, and one of them was that we were briefed on security issues, our own, and that of our cars, our homes and, crucially, our phones. I remember a retired military intelligence officer, who was then employed by something called the Central Unit, telling me: “It is wise to assume that there is no such thing as a private telephone call.” He then looked at the clunky Nokia on my desk, and added: “Certainly not on that.”
Of course phone technology has advanced massively since then, but so has what we can do on them, which makes them even more attractive to those who might be trying to use them to damage us and do us down, be they criminals, political opponents, or enemies of the state.
The cartoons spawned by the news that Boris Johnson still uses a mobile that those who know how to can all too easily track, and likely as not get inside, focused mainly on the idea that there were women friends in his address book that he would not necessarily want to contact via the Number 10 switchboard. But this issue is much more serious than that. It is actually a matter of national security.
Of course because of Covid, Johnson has not been able to travel as widely as he would in normal times. But when the never-ending diplomatic round resumes, and he is constantly flying to different parts of the world, I am sure he will be reminded, as we were, that there are some countries where it is sensible to assume that there is no such thing as privacy, let alone secrecy.
I remember a trip to India, when one of our security team found a listening device behind a painting in Tony Blair’s hotel suite. In Hong Kong for the handover to the Chinese, and on subsequent trips to China, we were advised to assume that everything we said, anywhere, was ‘on the record.’ In Russia, we were warned there was only one part of the ambassador’s residence – and it was not exactly spacious – that could be considered genuinely safe from GRU prying. Whenever we were in one of the huge black limos driving us around, if I were to say something sensitive, Tony would do a little twirling motion with his index finger, then put it to his lips, and we would lapse into a chat about football, the weather, or how well Vladimir Putin was looking.
Also, it is not simply because of the James Bond legend that Britain’s security services have the reputation as being among the best in the world; it’s because they are, so yes, we do it too, and occasionally get caught out like the Indians. Indeed, I was impressed by the sense of humour Gerry Adams showed when calling to complain about a listening device being found in the car of a leading Sinn Fein figure: “Sorry to bug you with this, Tony.”
Tony Blair himself never had his own phone during his ten years as prime minister. There were several very good reasons for this. First, as anyone who watched Line of Duty must know by now, they are a tracking device. That is why people visiting Number 10 to see the PM, irritating though it may be, have to hand their phones in on arrival.
Second, the PM is either in the building, and so always near a landline, or on the move, in which case he will never be alone. Even if he goes for a walk ‘on his own’, a security team goes with. Third, the Number 10 switchboard is legendary in its ability to track down anyone, anywhere.
Fourth, it acted as a protector of the PM’s time – his diary is a hugely valuable commodity in government, and his time has to be used according to strategic priorities, and government proprieties. One of the reasons a prime minister needs a team he or she can trust is so that most of the decisions about who to see and speak to, and when to see or speak to them, can be removed from them.
The number of people prime ministers actually need to see or speak to is dwarfed many times over by the number who want to see or speak to them. Fifth, and importantly, just as most physical meetings will require officials and advisers to be in the room, to record what is said, communicate more widely within government where necessary, and organise the follow-up of any decisions, so do phone calls which have policy decision-making ramifications. It makes for better government than having a prime minister randomly organising his own calls and then passing on titbits to whomsoever he thinks needs to know.
All of the above then, in addition to the obvious worry that things a prime minister might not want to be in the public domain end up there. Let me paint a picture that may or may not be entirely fanciful… that Johnson has said or messaged things on his phone that may contradict claims he has made in public about the matters under investigation by the Electoral Commission; or things that reveal he has misled parliament in relation to this, Covid, or anything else; or things that reveal diplomatic or security secrets… it leaves him very vulnerable, both to damaging public exposure, but also to blackmail. It is why the security services have been somewhat exasperated by his lax conduct.
I suspect that when Johnson was foreign secretary, let alone prime minister, a whole range of intelligence agencies could not believe their luck that he was so reckless with his own and the country’s security and interests. It is actually grossly irresponsible that he made himself vulnerable in this way. But it speaks to two things becoming ever clearer, the longer he is there: he does not see rules that apply to others as being applicable to him; and he governs in a manner that lends itself not to smooth decision-making, but to chaos and incompetence.
Johnson’s fundamental dishonesty is bad enough. But the irresponsibility in giving such an advantage to countries, organisations and people who may not have Britain’s best interests at heart, is even worse. Indeed might it be that Johnson, unwittingly, is the chatty rat that a leak inquiry has thus far failed to identify?
What I wouldn’t give to have Ted Hastings, Steve Arnett and Kate Fleming interrogate him to find out…
Alastair will be discussing his book on depression, Living Better, with Kay Burley as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, on Wednesday May 12, 7pm. They will be in person at a Blackwell’s store, audience online. Book here.