The theatrical resignation of the PM’s chief adviser takes ALASTAIR CAMPBELL back to a piece of advice given to him by Princess Diana in the 1990s.
Let’s start with a couple of people who are good at their job, and then move on to the government.
Emma Corrin is an actress. Peter Morgan is a writer, and creator of the huge Netflix hit, The Crown. Though Corrin was relatively unknown when casting for the current series was under way, Morgan spotted something in her that led to her being asked to play Princess Diana. No mean challenge. One of the most filmed and most studied women of our lifetime, whose every word and every mannerism have been subject to literally endless analysis and review.
Through a mutual friend – her flat-mate Lara Spirit, a colleague of mine at the People’s Vote campaign – I met her last year, when she was researching the role, keen to read as much as she could, and talk to people who had met Diana. I am claiming no role whatever, I should add, in her stunning performance, simply making the point that she did the work. People who are good at their job work hard, and do detail. (Cf Boris Johnson.) But I do remember at the end of our meeting worrying that, because she looked so different to Diana, it was going to be an uphill challenge for her to play her convincingly. I was so wrong. It is the mannerisms, the intonations of Diana’s voice, and her playfulness and vulnerability, that she captured so well.
The launch of the current series is not the only reason I had cause to think about the People’s Princess last week. Which takes me to Exhibit 1 in my array of people not very good at their job, Dominic Cummings, self-styled maverick genius and superforecaster, whose superforecasting did not alas extend to understanding that if you create enough chaos without positive advance to show for it, you might one day make yourself surplus to requirements.
His job, remember, was no longer to fight the EU referendum, or help shape an election strategy aimed at persuading the country that there was an oven-ready Brexit deal, and that the government wanted to help poorer people in the north. No, his job was as the taxpayer-funded chief strategic adviser to the prime minister. On any reckoning, he has failed, and the descent into full-on soap operatics at a time Covid and Brexit pose such genuine challenges to the government and the country, underlines that failure.
It was as he carried his poor-me Lehman Brothers-style cardboard box over the threshold of Number 10 that one of my strongest memories of Princess Diana popped into my mind.
“Whatever they do to you,” she said at one of the private meetings we had with her in the mid-1990s, “they can never take away your pictures”. She was speaking about herself, but it was in the context of a discussion about campaigning and media management – she knew a lot about both – and it was her way of saying, as we neared the election campaign, that we should give a lot of thought not just to the words and actions of Tony Blair, but how he was photographed. And we did.
So does Cummings, though not in relation to Boris Johnson, but himself. I couldn’t help noticing, on the TV footage of the pictures of him on a desk celebrating winning the EU referendum, a credit at the bottom of the screen, “pictures supplied by Dominic Cummings”.
In Number 10, the studied scruffiness leaning against a wall at the back of a press conference held by his boss, the beanie hats, the backside hanging out of his trousers, the panic-stricken running up the street in front of the cameras when he heard his wife was ill, the packing of the boot with kids’ bike equipment as he urged social distancing on photographers… he might as well have “look at me” tattooed on his forehead. And what of the ‘official’ photo of Boris Johnson celebrating the exit poll signalling an election win? There was Cummings behind him, scruffy clothes, laptop at hand, the message … “he is the front man, it is my victory.” Princess Didom. Great pictures.
The cardboard box stunt could not have been more staged, more attention-seeking, more typically Cummings, and the media lapped it up.
Here I return to the arts, and two others who are very good at their job. Another playwright, James Graham. Another actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Cummings in Graham’s TV drama, The Uncivil War. It seems to have gone to his head.
Exhibit 2, though, is Johnson. Exhibit 3 is Michael Gove. They enabled him, indulged him, empowered him, fed his ego when it was obvious it, and he, were getting out of control. Exhibit 4 are those political editors and reporters whose job is to tell the public what is happening inside government, but who became far too dependent on Cummings and his clique, and so failed to tell the true story of what was going on – shambles, incompetence, fear and loathing – because they relied on the clique so much to feed their two-ways and fill their columns.
Exhibit 5 is Lee Cain, number 2 in the clique. Communications director? Asked by Johnson to be chief of staff? The communications on Covid and much else have been a shambles. Again, though, Johnson is the chief culprit on that front. If I was hearing stories of the contempt with which the Vote Leave gang treated everyone else trying to get a grip of the mixed messaging, then I am sure he was, or if he wasn’t, he has never had control of his own operation.
I don’t know if Allegra Stratton has started her job as Johnson’s new press secretary yet, but if she has, then she is Exhibit 6. I accept it is not all her fault that she has arrived into this chaos. But if the long reads in the press are even half true, she is not exactly helping calm things down. And if she has any sense at all, she will stop briefing the media about what she thinks, and focus on what her boss thinks (or get him to decide what he thinks.) And she should persuade him to drop the silly idea of televised briefings by her, and instead shift the focus of scrutiny back to parliament.
What was remarkable about the accounts of all the comings and goings, the tears and the tantrums, was how little discussion there seemed to be about anything that might be termed serious… arguments over Covid strategy; anyone suggesting a sensible way out of the Brexit impasse. It was all about ego, power, playing games.
The country is a pawn in these games. Lives have been lost, livelihoods have been damaged, the country’s reputation has fallen, but to Johnson and Co, politics is a game, the same way that when he and Gove were journalists, journalism was a game. Brexit, from the moment he decided to go for the pro-Leave column he had written for the Telegraph, rather than the pro-Remain one, was a game. He won it. The country is the loser.
And though Cummings may have gone, the real damage of his and Johnson’s game-playing is yet to come. A serious government would have by now asked for an extension to the Brexit transition until Covid is under control. Alas, we do not have one. We have a Kindergarten.
In addition to Diana, the other big name to enter Peter Morgan’s Royal fray is Margaret Thatcher, played with real humanity by Gillian Anderson. I spent much of my journalistic career raging at Thatcher, her policies, her personality, her style. But at least she was serious, hard-working, knew her own mind. At least her big soap operas – her economic adviser v Chancellor Nigel Lawson, her against Geoffrey Howe – were about issues of substance, not the pathetic squabbles that have reduced Johnson further in the eyes of the public, and Britain further in the eyes of the world.