Britain’s got no chance of a happy new year

Britain’s got no chance of a happy new year

Back in the mid-’90s, when Tony Blair and I were picking Paul Keating’s considerable political brain ahead of the 1997 election campaign, among the many wise, colourful observations made by the then Australian prime minister was his view that “you can’t polish a turd”. Boris Johnson seems determined to prove him wrong.

Johnson and his team had two big challenges in 2020. One, Brexit, was “planned” in that he led and won the European Union referendum campaign in 2016, helped knock out two prime ministers to get the job himself, and then won a good majority on the promise to “get Brexit done”.

The second, COVID-19, was anything but planned, and I do not blame the government that it has come to dominate our lives. But I do blame it for the absolute mess it has made of both challenges,

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and the damage done to lives, livelihoods and national reputation as a result. The thread that links them is a Prime Minister who prefers slogans to facts, promises of good times ahead to dealing with bad times now, cheery optimism to hard-headed analysis; who speaks of the world as he wants it to be, not as it is. That is Trumpian populism, and what is happening to our country now, on Brexit and on COVID-19, is what right-wing populism, and populists like Johnson, do.

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His turd-polishing on COVID-19, presenting one of the world’s worst death rates and worst recessionary impacts as some great triumph, helped set him up for a huge turd-polishing operation on the Brexit deal, helped by the opposition announcing it would support the deal before it had seen it (provoking a rebellion not among Johnson’s ranks but Labour leader Keir Starmer’s), the limit of a single day of parliamentary scrutiny for a 1246-page document covering huge swathes of our lives, and by several national newspapers which would not look out of place on North Korean news-stands, covering the Great Triumphs of Kim Il-bojo.

At every stage of the COVID-19 process — from his boasting of shaking hands in hospitals, giving the go-ahead to huge sporting events like the Cheltenham races, telling us COVID-19 would be gone in 12 weeks, then back to normal by the northern summer, telling the world one country had to stand up against the virus without shutting down, and let it be us, telling us we would be free to meet and mingle, and travel countrywide for Christmas — he has told us what he wants to believe, and what he thinks we want to hear.

And then, as happened again over Christmas, when a surge in new cases put paid to his plans for “five days of freedom”, he has been brought crashing down to earth by those awful old things called facts.

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Both as journalist and politician, Johnson has never much bothered with facts. They’re inconvenient. They get in the way of the fun. The game. Which to Johnson is what politics has always been about. As a journalist, making up stories about “Brussels” banning bent bananas, insisting on one-size-fits-all condoms (based on Italian penis length) and, more seriously, being hellbent on building an EU super-state. As a politician, being the populist jester.

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I’ll give him this: he is good at snappy slogans, whether “take back control” from the referendum, “oven-ready deal” (sic), from the 2019 election, “we’ll send the virus packing”(which he has spectacularly failed to do) or “levelling up”, his fraudulent claim that Brexit is about helping communities left behind, not rewarding the low-tax, low-regulation offshore philosophy favoured by those whose financial and political support made it happen.

He and his supporters are banging out the post-deal slogans now. Not just the best Christmas present, but “Blast-off Britain”. When even by their own assessment this deal will take 4 per cent from the value of our economy, and when tariff-free, quota-free trade arrangements will depend on us not diverging too rapidly, or risk losing even more trade, and creating more bureaucracy, Blast-off Britain, even by his standards, seems over optimistic in the extreme.

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As a Trumpian populist, he is great at slogans, terrible at governing; the worst possible Prime Minister, at the worst possible time, with a cabinet, every member appointed purely on the basis of loyalty to him and to Brexit, surely the least able collection of ministers the country has ever had.

The Americans, thank God, have got rid of their populist leader, and corrected their error of 2016. We now have to live with Johnson for some time yet, and the 2016 error for a whole lot longer. Happy New Year? No chance.

Alastair Campbell is a British journalist and political aide. He was former prime minister Tony Blair’s spokesman, press secretary and director of communications and strategy.

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