Slovakia 10, Britain 0

COVID-19 has given an indication that Brexit is unlikely to go well, least of all for the UK, Tony Blair's former top adviser writes for The Slovak Spectator.

Boris Johnson scores zero out of ten, writes Alastair Campbell, former spokesman of Tony Blair. Boris Johnson scores zero out of ten, writes Alastair Campbell, former spokesman of Tony Blair. (Source: AP/TASR)

Alastair Campbell is an author and strategist. He was spokesman and strategist for Tony Blair, 1994-2003

Slovakia is one of those European countries that many of my British compatriots would struggle to place on a map. Some might confuse it with Slovenia; others would know it only if they have had personal experience of its wonderful tourism, amazing scenery, culture, history and hospitality.

I am certain that, at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, if any Brit had been asked: ‘Who do you think will do a better job of managing the crisis, the UK or Slovakia?’ they would have laughed at the very idea that tiny Slovakia could possibly do better than mighty Britain.

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Yet look at us now … Britain stands ignominiously at the ‘top’ of the deaths-per-million league table. And when I posted a video on Twitter, pointing out that sad, tragic fact, one of my favourite responses was from someone called ‘British in Slovakia.’

He said: ‘In Slovakia, which is in Schengen, and has five land borders, we closed the country immediately and mask use became mandatory – not ‘if you can’. This week, we opened borders with our neighbours and can go to cinemas, pubs, shopping centres. All this with 28 deaths, and a population of five million.’

That is indeed quite a success story, all the more impressive for there being a young new government in charge. It stands in marked contrast to the UK. I know that many Slovaks follow Manchester United. Their Old Trafford home is now the only Premier League stadium that would be large enough to accommodate the UK’s excess deaths since the pandemic began, well over 60,000. Much of the blame rests with our prime minister.

The opposite of what the UK needs

I have known Boris Johnson for many years, since we were both journalists – he for the right-wing Daily Telegraph and Spectator magazine, I for the left-wing Daily Mirror. Then, when I was Tony Blair’s spokesman, Johnson would appear at some of my briefings to snort, make jokes, and defend stories he had invented, such as ‘Brussels’ plans to insist on single-size condoms, or ban flavoured potato crisps, or regulate the curvature of bananas. He rose to fame by being a figure of fun, and has carried on all the way to the top with the same shtick. A joke has become the nation’s leader, and is making our country a global laughing stock.

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What COVID-19 has shown is just how unsuited he is for a serious position: dismissive of the crisis as it bore down on the world; ignoring the experts to boast that he had shaken hands with infected patients; urging major sporting events to continue even as other nearby countries went into lockdown; failing to provide protective equipment to the frontline; failing to deliver on promise upon promise that everyone who needed a test could get one; thinking, as with Brexit, that all that was required was slogans.

His faux-Churchillian addresses have created as much confusion as they were designed to end, and in between times he has hidden away, even before he was ill, barely visible. Since recovering he has only really emerged to defend his adviser, Dominic Cummings, who broke lockdown rules that he himself helped to devise, earning no punishment save the contempt of millions who had stayed home, as instructed, for two months.

We have long known Johnson is a liar. What the crisis has shown is that he is also serially incompetent. We are now up there with the US, Russia and Brazil in terms of total deaths, with Johnson, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro labelled ‘the four leaders of the infected world’ by Der Spiegel, the influential German news magazine.

Johnson rose to the top of his party by persuading them he was a winner, able to appeal to people other Tories could not. And it is true that he has won a lot. He became mayor of London, all my life a Labour city; he led the ‘no’ campaign to victory in the Brexit referendum, against the odds; he won the Tory leadership, winning support even from MPs who said they knew he would be a disaster; and he won a general election. However, the qualities that got him there – a casual disregard for truth, the ability to laugh off scandal, the mastery of turning complex issues into snappy slogans – are the exact opposite of what is needed now.

Zero out of ten

At the start of this crisis, when I was trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, based partly on what we learned from what we did well and what we did badly during the crises of the Blair years, I sent a note to ministers and civil servants, initially at their request, and published a version in the London Evening Standard newspaper, on the approach government should take.

  1. Devise, execute but also narrate clear strategy.
  2. Show strong, clear, consistent leadership.
  3. Organise from the centre of government.
  4. Throw everything at it.
  5. Use experts well.
  6. Deploy a strong team.
  7. Make the big moments count.
  8. Take the public with you.
  9. Show genuine empathy for people affected by the crisis.
  10. Give hope, but not false hope.
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It is not an exaggeration to say that Johnson scores zero out of ten. There has been, and still is, no clear strategy. It veered from ignore, to herd immunity, to partial lockdown, now to easing in defiance of scientific advice. The lockdown was breaking down, even as Johnson was making great play that we could finally see a couple of people from outside our homes provided we observe social distancing and stay outdoors. Most were not listening, as the beaches and parks were already packed.

Leadership, even before he was taken ill, was absent, and since he returned he has been more focused on saving Dominic Cummings than in saving the country from COVID-19. The centre, shredded by austerity and the packing of Cabinet with nothing but true Brexit believers, has been weakened. Johnson’s team is pitifully weak. Experts are used not for expertise but to provide political cover. The big moments have been bedevilled by mixed messaging. As for empathy, ministers show little concern for the dead and grieving beyond robotic ‘our thoughts and prayers are with them,’ day after day at briefings which have become a masterclass in dreadful communications.

COVID-19 shows things will not go well with Brexit

Johnson won power by posing as a friend of the people against a mythical elite. It was quite a con, given his privileged Eton School and Oxford University background. The Cummings scandal, and the confirmation that this clique is comprised of people who make rules for others but do not feel compelled to obey them themselves, has exposed that people-versus-elite myth as a sham, and exposed Johnson for what some of us have always known him to be – a charlatan, utterly unsuited for any senior position, let alone the highest in the land.

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Looking around the world, it is interesting how many of the leaders who score closer to ten than zero, are women: Angela Merkel in Germany, Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan, Erna Solberg in Norway, Mette Frederiksen in Denmark, and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand who, to my mind, had the single best communications line of the entire crisis. Announcing an early lockdown, she said: ‘New Zealand only has 102 cases … but so did Italy once.’

These countries are now back to near normal; only 22 New Zealanders have died with COVID-19. And of course Slovakia has a woman president in Zuzana Čaputová. I think any Slovak looking at that list above would say she and Prime Minister Igor Matovič’s leadership has been more impressive than Johnson’s.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is trying to persuade teachers, parents and children that it is safe for schools to resume. His big argument is that other European countries have shown that it can be done. The big difference is that other European countries have governments that are competent, well-led, able to build consensus, and capable of explaining things without lying, or boasting of what a great job they have done.And to think these are the same people who gave us Brexit – and still have no clue how it will work out. COVID-19 has given an indication, however, that that too is unlikely to go well, least of all for the UK.

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