Interview: Alastair Campbell on Boris Johnson and the government’s ‘cavalier’ coronavirus strategy, Sir Keir Starmer and the Royal Free
- Credit: PA
From the death of Princess Diana to foot and mouth disease to the Iraq War, Alastair Campbell has experienced his fair share of crises - but none quite top the coronavirus pandemic.
Having enforced his own lockdown five weeks ago “while Boris Johnson was still attending rugby internationals”, Tony Blair’s former director of communications has since sported a quarantine haircut, shared his standout trees on Hampstead Heath, and serenaded his neighbour – an NHS nurse – on the bagpipes.
But none of these moments of light respite cloud his clear concern over the government’s handling of coronavirus.
The Gospel Oak journalist, 62, spoke with the Ham&High about Whitehall’s “cavalier” Covid-19 strategy, Sir Keir Starmer’s suitability as Labour leader, appreciation for the Royal Free and how day-to-day life may play out in a post-coronavirus world.
Government’s Covid-19 approach
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Alastair insists he’s critical of the government’s coronavirus strategy in a “constructive” way, but that overall, Downing Street’s approach has been “frustrating”.
“I do think in the early days we were unbelievably slow to get on top of it,” he says.
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“I think Boris Johnson was really cavalier about the whole thing and now the government is still paying a price for that.
“I think people find it very hard to understand why they can’t do some of the basic things, like ensuring doctors and nurses are properly protected.”
Behind the curve?
Alongside the US and Brazil, Alastair says there’s “no doubt” the UK fell into the category of “wishful thinking” in failing to grasp the scale and scope of the virus - something the government has denied.
He says Whitehall has done a “pretty good job” on healthcare capacity, but points to what he sees as the lack of pandemic preparedness in the prime minister’s political posturing.
“I think Boris Johnson was very gung-ho and cavalier at the start,” he said.
“He made that ridiculous speech about being the country that puts on a ‘superman cape’, as if this virus was something to challenge like a conventional fight.
“I think that set the tone for quite a while, and by the time they started to realise this is very serious, I think they were behind the curve.”
Alastair added: “I do think now we’re into this extended lockdown that people will start to become a little less automatically trusting than they were before.”
An area of his expertise, Alastair admits he’s not been “terribly impressed” by the government’s communications, particularly around the lack of data and information sharing.
So, for a man who’s been at the helm of UK crisis planning before, what would he do differently?
“I don’t think they’re treating people like adults,” he said.
“They’re not taking the public into their confidence about the decisions they are making.
“It’s almost like they’re still campaigning – it’s all about presenting in a way to suggest they are doing everything right as opposed to telling us what’s happening.
“When they say ‘we’re following the science’, well explain what that means because I think people find it very confusing when different countries are taking different approaches.”
Sir Keir Starmer
Holborn and St Pancras’ MP, recently elected as Labour Party leader with 56 per cent of the vote, has made “a very good start in challenging circumstances”, according to Alastair.
Expelled of his party membership for voting Liberal Democrat last May, Labour’s former communications chief said he would have voted for Starmer if he had the chance.
Unlike the high-profile assumptions of leadership gone before him, Starmer assumed the mantle with a nine-minute video clip.
“In normal times his elevation to the leadership would have been one of the biggest things in the country,” Alastair says.
“People would have been excited about him, a new leader in Parliament challenging Boris Johnson.
“But I think he’s getting the balance right between saying the government is in the middle of a crisis and therefore we should all pull together, and at the same time being a critical friend who is asking the difficult questions.”
For now, coronavirus will dominate and define Starmer’s premiership, Alastair says.
But when the dust settles and parliamentary service resumes, he urges Sir Keir to adopt a strategy that first mitigates any economic recession, and then looks ahead to the next election.
Specifically, he encourages the Labour leader to pave the way on climate change, health and inequality – issues that “are going to be there after coronavirus, probably exacerbated by what we’re going through now”.
Healing Labour’s factional divisions will no doubt fall upon Starmer’s plate too, thrust back into the spotlight after a leaked report claimed Jeremy Corbyn was prevented from dealing with antisemitism complaints by senior party officials.
Alastair says the report struck him as a “last gasp of the Corbynistas” to protect the predecessor’s legacy and that Starmer – “very stong on antisemitism” – should forge his own path.
“What’s important is that he doesn’t define himself against these divisions,” he said.
“I think there’ll be a danger to say well you’ve got the Corbyn wing on one side and you’ve got the New Labour, Blairite – call it what you want – on the other.
“It’s more important that he defines what it is he wants to do with the Labour Party and his own agenda, and that he isn’t defined by divisions of the past.
“That’s not straightforward, it’s not easy, but I think that’s the best way to sort it out.
“I’m not sure that triangulation within the party is the way to do it.”
NHS and the Royal Free
Despite the untold misery of Covid-19, Alastair hopes it will ringfence a renewed political protection for the “extraordinary” NHS.
“I really, really hope this is the end of all the talk that there’s been about carving up the NHS and flogging it off to [Donald] Trump.
“People now realise just why it matters so much.
“I also hope there’s a reckoning of who we value and how we value them – I hope there will be a re-evaluation of some of the priorities in life.
“I mean who do we need more – the banker with the seven-figure bonus or the cleaner who keeps the hospital wards clean?”
As for the Royal Free, Alastair is unwavering in admiration.
A “big part” of his family’s life for 30 years, where all of his children were born, he says the area is “incredibly lucky” to have the hospital at its beck and call – now more than ever.
He notes the marked sense of community spirit around Hampstead too, summed up by the “amazing” weekly claps for carers.
He recalls: “I remember one day we were out walking and there was a little girl, eleven or twelve, going door-to-door putting handwritten notes through the letterboxes saying if anybody needed shopping done or their medication collected, then to give her a ring.”
“There’s been lots of that.”
Despite the unique enormity of how people and politics have stood together, the lasting “legacy” of coronavirus will lie in the sequence of its social footprint, Alastair suspects.
“We may all end up having to wear masks,” he says.
“We may end up not being able to travel as much as we did.
“We may end up having different groups of people who can do things that other people can’t do – different generations being allowed to do different activities.
“I think it will take a long time to work out exactly what the long-term consequences are, but a bit like 9/11 where airport security around the world changed, I think similarly there are going to be all sorts of things that will be different after coronavirus.
“What they are and how those changes last, I just don’t know.”