ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: How Theresa May gives the press the slip
PUBLISHED: 09:00 11 January 2019 | UPDATED: 14:22 11 January 2019
2019 BBC Picture Publicity
Alastair Campbell explains why he is desperate for an interviewer who will hold Theresa May to account.
How many parallel universes are we expected to live in? A new one arrived on Monday, headlines proclaiming a revolution in healthcare, and the entirely marvellous notion that half a million children’s lives were going to be saved by genetic testing. Half a million children saved, half a million families spared grief and desolation, what’s not to like?
It all sounds great. Just as it sounded great when Theresa May stood on the steps on Downing Street almost 1,000 days ago and told how her premiership would address the “burning injustices” of our time. Remember the ‘Just About Managing’? Remember the commitment to improving services in mental health, addressing the gender pay gap, racial inequality in the criminal justice system, improving state schools, helping the young onto the housing ladder, boosting job security? Hand on heart, can she say there has been progress? Well, she can, just as she can say her Brexit deal is delivering what the British people want, while being very careful to make sure she never has to ask them. The truth, however, is a different matter.
So now out comes another ten-year plan for the NHS, big bold plans, and yet despite the previous commitments of their last big bold plans being so spectacularly unmet, May and her team feel no shame whatever in moving on to the next ones, and most of the media is so short-termist it lets them. Waiting times up, waiting lists longer, A&E targets shot to pieces, her pledge that children would not have to leave their own area for psychiatric care long forgotten, an explosion in people living on the streets, the Just About Managing long since despatched to the overflowing dustbin of once useful slogans; and yet with the same breezy brio they come along and say ‘this plan, this time, just you watch …’
How I long for an interviewer to sit down with May and simply take her through the things she has said before, armed with the facts about how far away from delivery she now is. There are disadvantages to being a politician today, not least the omni-pressure of the media, but there are advantages too – like the serious attention span deficit disorder among journalists this omni-pressure has created, and their assumption that the public cannot be bothered with too much detail.
Trump-like, May feels little or no shame in saying black is white, and wrong is right. So when Andrew Marr put it to her on his Sunday programme that she had promised there would be a comprehensive trade deal in place at this stage of the negotiations and so “that has been a failure”, she uttered a half-swallowed “no” and moved on. But actually – yes. Yes you did. When Marr then quoted to her Jeremy Corbyn’s charge that her deal represented a “blind Brexit”, she asserted “no it is not”, and claimed the existence of something called “an unprecedented degree of relationship”. But it is a blind Brexit, in that we simply do not know what our trade relationship is going to be and yes, Marr was right first time.
Older readers may remember Brian Walden, the MP-turned-interviewer. What would he have done with that half-swallowed ‘no’?
Picked away at it, had the words at his fingertips to remind her of what she had said before and the facts at his fingertips to show how she had failed to deliver on her promises.
What would he have done with the big claims she made for her deal? “Does it deliver on the referendum, taking back control of our borders, laws and money?” she asked, now interviewing herself. “Yes it does. Does it protect jobs and security? Yes it does. Does it provide certainty for business? Yes it does.”
Only it doesn’t. Indeed, the reason so many Brexiters are against the deal is that they think it doesn’t deliver on the referendum, it isn’t really Brexit at all. And the reason so many Remainers are against it is that it doesn’t protect jobs and security, or provide certainty for business, not least because it fails to guarantee another of her past promises, namely frictionless trade.
“That’s the case for the deal,” was how Andrew Marr responded to her self-interviewing triptych. Fair enough, I understand, he had to move on, there was a lot to get through in the interview, and in the show more generally. Music, arts, it’s not all about politics, it’s not all about Brexit. But politicians are at an advantage if they can avoid being pinned down, in the media and in parliament, and if our collective political memory becomes weakened by the attention span shortening process, the pace of change, the relentlessness of the news agenda moving from one thing to the next, the need to get through too much.
Donald Trump thrives on this. It is what helps keep him afloat. Scandals don’t endure. Lies get forgotten because another one has come along. Or – take for example May’s continued use of the so-called Brexit dividend – they do not get properly challenged and the perpetrator of the lie feels they can carry on lying. And with Boris Johnson’s NHS lie on the red bus, some carry on lying even when it is properly challenged.
It’s as if the present and the future have no connection with the past. Brexit: The Uncivil War, the Channel 4 near-hagiography of Leave strategist and NHS lie-creator Dominic Cummings, reminded us of an important slice of that past. Even accepting that screenwriter James Graham is a dramatist not a documentary maker, an artist not a political chronicler, the film was a reminder not just of how venal and amoral the campaign was, but how quickly the venality and amorality have been forgotten, sufficient for him to feel he didn’t really need to get too deeply into all that. Lies deliberately told. Data abused. Electoral law broken. And nobody seems to care. A bunch of Oxbridge private schoolboys pretending it was all about the working class. So what? It helped the winning side win. Move on. Suck it up.
And so, tagged onto the main Brexit news story on the BBC on Monday morning, a line from Boris Johnson’s Telegraph column that no-deal was the closest thing available to what the people voted for in 2016. Err, that would be the no-deal that he and virtually everyone else insisted was not even remotely on the agenda.
Now it is. Not because anyone voted for it, nor because anyone other than a few ideological right-wingers want it. But because we risk sliding into it, led there by incompetence and hubris, and a government making it up as they go along: The prime minister, who has begun to elide two very different concepts – “my deal” and “the national interest” – and who, in saying we will be in “uncharted territory” if her deal is voted down, admits she does not know what will happen; ministers, who all too often emanate ineptitude and incompetence every time they appear on our screens, so that some days watching the news is like tuning in to a really bad version of Dad’s Army. Defence secretary Gavin Williamson even looks like Pike (younger readers check out Gold TV schedules); Sajid – ‘call me The Saj’ – Javid declaring a national crisis out of a few men in a boat; health secretary Matt Hancock, who sounds like he is permanently buffering, consistent with his obsession for tech and gadgets from Silicon Valley when he might get more from focusing on nurses and doctors leaving to head back to countries closer to home; Andrea Leadsom, who exists purely as a reminder that no matter how bad Theresa May is, things could have been worse; Chris Grayling turning airfields into lorry park exercise parks and presiding over multi million contracts for ferry companies without ferries… it’s just not funny.
But just as May is defending her deal when she knows it is dead, Grayling defends his contracts awarding systems with the same blind faith. Due diligence has been done. We checked it all out. It’s going to be fine. Everything is going to be fine. Only it’s not.
Tuesday is the big day. The vote. Finally. MPs have an enormous responsibility. It is about our future. But they really do need to keep half an eye on the past. Promises made. Promises broken. Claims made for what would happen, only it is not happening; claims made for things they said would not happen, which are. So many reasons not to trust this deal,this government, this prime minister, this Brexit.