Theresa May, Tony Blair.
Alastair Campbell, The Independent
In these desperate times, in which the populist virus is wreaking havoc with the world, we must take little pleasures wherever we can find them. Like the little pleasure I take seeing Boris Johnson stumble, splutter and “er, ah, um” his way through his encounter with the Liaison Committee. It is a pleasure born of the fact that the prime ministerial grilling by select committee chairmen and women was my idea, many moons ago.
It emerged from a brainstorm we convened when Tony Blair was prime minister, as the Tories and their media supporters were successfully mounting the argument that, contrary to reality, he and the New Labour government did not take their duties to parliament seriously. Johnson, both as journalist and then politician, was foremost in running that line against us. So the little pleasure in watching him so clearly not enjoying, and certainly not mastering, the Liaison Committee is partly boosted by remembering his part in that campaign.
Tony Blair was initially reluctant to add a regular session with select committee chairs to his parliamentary duties. Prime Minister’s Question Time was onerous enough. To the end, he never stopped finding it nerve-wracking; he even had a little PMQs superstition – he wore the same pair of shoes for every session he ever did, for a decade.
The fact that he so often made PMQs look easy was a consequence of two things – how seriously he took these weekly half-hour sessions, and how much time and effort he put into being on top of the detail of every question likely to come up. Once he agreed to do the Liaison Committee, he made sure he did it well. We operated on the Benjamin Franklin doctrine – “fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” Boris Johnson operates on the Boris Johnson doctrine: “Let’s wing it.”
Watching Johnson flounder Thursday, I caught sight behind him of one of the reasons why Tony Blair was so good at PMQs, a dapper civil servant by the name of Nicholas Howard. Nick was part of a tiny team whose role was constantly to be on top of all the factual detail across government that the prime minister might need once he was at that despatch box, or in that committee room. He has done the same job for every prime minister from Blair to Johnson.
He is as discreet as he is professional. I recall bumping into him in Whitehall, with a couple of Theresa May’s special advisers, when she was prime minister. But knowing him as I do, I can only imagine what he was feeling inside as he sat behind the current prime minister. I have no doubt whatever that Nick will have accurately predicted the questions likely to come up from each of the chairs; no doubt either that he would have put together the key facts related to all of them, and the key arguments to support them, in Johnson’s briefing folder.
So it will certainly not have been his fault that Johnson was so awful, so woefully not on top of the detail, so vague on the government’s many Covid-19 failings, so unaware of the different things his ministers had said on the same subject, so cavalier about details of a Good Friday Agreement he has almost certainly never read, skating the surface on issues on which his questioners were clearly so much better informed.
On both sides of the Atlantic, unserious politicians got a hiding from serious politicians. Bluff and bluster can take you so far. The Liaison Committee exposed the limits of the bluff and bluster. Biden and Pelosi called it out, and exposed just how damaging Brexit and Johnson are to the UK’s standing in the world, and so to our future strength and prosperity. Nobody can take any pleasure in that sad reality.
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