Alastair Campbell: What Johnson and Corbyn have in common

Tuesday 3 November 2020

Their politics are different, but their personalities might be closer than they’d care to admit


Boris Johnson’s psychology is a mystery to me. How is it possible to spend a whole life fantasising about being prime minister, plotting to fulfil that fantasy, and then be so uninterested in the hard graft and boring detail required to do the job? As someone who has worked with prime ministers, I find it baffling. It seems to me that both Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn (we’ll get to him) prefer the fantasy of being prime minister to the reality.

The problem for Johnson, and more importantly the country, is that in his case the fantasy is real. He is prime minister at a time of a life-destroying, economy-destroying pandemic, and of a Brexit which he won, but which he appears unable to deliver without adding to chaos and economic harm. On both Covid and Brexit, he seems dangerously averse to informing himself and interrogating the options properly, and woefully unwilling to apply the grip required when dealing with such serious issues.

He also shares with Corbyn a reluctance to accept responsibility for things going wrong; a loathing of saying sorry. When Johnson finally turned up for his press conference on Saturday, he apologised for disturbing our weekend but not for being hours late, nor for the leaks and the concern and confusion they caused, nor for yet again having important changes revealed to the media before Parliament. And of course he did not apologise for the many excess deaths, the billions spent on systems that are not working, or for now deciding on a policy he had recently contemptuously dismissed.

Neither Johnson nor Corbyn will thank me for pointing out what they have in common, but it is striking. As Johnson was busying himself with the shambolic lurch into another lockdown, Corbyn was suspended by the Labour Party for his reaction to the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission on antisemitism in the party, which had become the defining shambles of his time as leader.

The findings were damning, and Corbyn’s reaction to them was of someone determined to remind people of the quality he most admires in himself, but which is among the least admired by the public – his inability to change his mind, adapt to circumstances, or admit he may have been wrong.

Boris Johnson’s psychology is a mystery to me. How is it possible to spend a whole life fantasising about being prime minister, plotting to fulfil that fantasy, and then be so uninterested in the hard graft and boring detail required to do the job? As someone who has worked with prime ministers, I find it baffling. It seems to me that both Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn (we’ll get to him) prefer the fantasy of being prime minister to the reality.

The problem for Johnson, and more importantly the country, is that in his case the fantasy is real. He is prime minister at a time of a life-destroying, economy-destroying pandemic, and of a Brexit which he won, but which he appears unable to deliver without adding to chaos and economic harm. On both Covid and Brexit, he seems dangerously averse to informing himself and interrogating the options properly, and woefully unwilling to apply the grip required when dealing with such serious issues.

He also shares with Corbyn a reluctance to accept responsibility for things going wrong; a loathing of saying sorry. When Johnson finally turned up for his press conference on Saturday, he apologised for disturbing our weekend but not for being hours late, nor for the leaks and the concern and confusion they caused, nor for yet again having important changes revealed to the media before Parliament. And of course he did not apologise for the many excess deaths, the billions spent on systems that are not working, or for now deciding on a policy he had recently contemptuously dismissed.

Neither Johnson nor Corbyn will thank me for pointing out what they have in common, but it is striking. As Johnson was busying himself with the shambolic lurch into another lockdown, Corbyn was suspended by the Labour Party for his reaction to the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission on antisemitism in the party, which had become the defining shambles of his time as leader.

The findings were damning, and Corbyn’s reaction to them was of someone determined to remind people of the quality he most admires in himself, but which is among the least admired by the public – his inability to change his mind, adapt to circumstances, or admit he may have been wrong.

Here is what he could, and should in my view, at the very minimum, have said in response to the report: “It is a painful report to read. It reminds me that on my watch, a problem became a crisis for the party, which damaged us, and led to a lot of hurt. We must all take responsibility for that, and as leader for most of that time, me more than most. I now wish the new Party leadership well in implementing the recommendations.” How easy would that have been? With that formulation, he didn’t even need to say sorry.

Instead, we got all the self-serving, weasel words that had made clear on so many occasions in the past that he couldn’t see what the fuss was about; the irrelevant nonsense about opinion polls showing people had an exaggerated sense of how many anti-semites there really were in the party; the sense that poor Jezza was more of a victim at the hands of a horrid press and horrid opponents, than the people hounded and harassed out of the party by his adoring supporters.

To have used something close to my formulation would have made him a part of the story, but not the main event. Corbyn, however, was determined to be the main event. He had to be relevant, and if the only way was by creating a problem for the new leader, who had had the courtesy to tell him in advance how he intended to handle the report, then so be it. It was time for the telly to show the “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” Glastonbury footage once more.

Even now, he could easily undo the damage done on Thursday. A short statement, saying he misjudged how his comments would be seen, that he was not seeking to undermine the report, or excuse the legal and other breaches it had recorded, and he wished the party well in healing the wounds this issue had caused. That is all it needs.

But he won’t do it. Vanity won’t let him. He’s been trending on Twitter again, and he likes it. The media are back outside his house for him to sneer at (I quite enjoyed the doorstep sneering too, in the days before I became a “former”.) His loyalist supporters are rushing to defend him, give him money for a fighting fund to go to court, portraying him as a victim, not as the man who helped to give the country Brexit and Boris Johnson’s majority. He’s back. He’s relevant. It’s great.

A chilling fact: Labour has lost all but three of the last eleven elections. Corbyn was a persistent critic of the leader who won those three. He did not like being criticised and challenged when leader himself and, indeed, some of us were kicked out of the party for insisting that self-righteousness and being right are not always the same thing.

And here is a third characteristic he has in common with Johnson, who likewise seems to believe that what is right is whatever he is saying or doing at the time. Johnson speaks of showing humility before nature, when what he needs to show is humility full stop: “Sorry, we did not handle the first wave well. We over-promised and under delivered. We preferred to see the world as we want it to be, not as it is. That is a mistake I have learned from, and will not be repeating.” It would do him the world of good. But there is as much chance of it happening as there is of Jeremy Corbyn saying it was quite an achievement for New Labour to win those three elections.

On a personal level, I have some sympathy for Corbyn. I wonder if he is struggling with no longer being centre stage. I know I did when I left Downing Street in 2003. From years of full-on activity, clear purpose, status, recognition, being part of a big team, there suddenly emerged a very different and very difficult life which forced me to dial down on all of those things. With the multiple dial-downs came one of the worst depressions of my life, and an episode of violent self-harm which led me, finally, to seek out proper psychiatric help.

It is hard to go from everyone hanging on your every word to wondering whether anyone is even listening. I cannot say for sure that that horribly dark depressive period in my life was a direct consequence of my having left the political stage, but the psychiatrist was in no doubt of the link.

What’s transpired since then doesn’t help. Whatever pride or pleasure I take in New Labour’s accomplishments, I look at the successive defeats for the party since, and ruminate that we cannot have been that good, or we would never have ended up with Corbyn becoming leader, and the party becoming defined as much by anti-semitism as by making change for the people and issues we care about. We would never have had Brexit, for surely part of our purpose had been to secure the UK’s place as a leading player in the EU. I look at Johnson, who as a Telegraph journalist used to stand at the back of my briefings and snort, and I think how the hell did that happen, that he is prime minister, and I am sitting on my sofa writing about him, and tweeting angrily every time he opens his mouth?

Corbyn has had two shots at the top job, and failed. He is still an MP, and by the accounts of many of his constituents a good one. But whether he likes it or not he is very much a member of the “former” club. He has had his day as leader. It is gone. The British people put paid to that, and he helped the process along.

If he wants to see another Labour government in his and my lifetime, he should embrace his inner “former”. Exit stage left and leave the platform to others. He would win respect galore if he could bring himself to do so with a variation of the words I suggest above.

In the meantime, I would like to send him a copy of my book on depression, which also records my recovery from political addiction. We could then meet halfway between Gospel Oak and Islington for the first meeting of the self-help group for expelled or suspended Labour has-beens striving to live without the relevance we once had. And perhaps we could put our heads together to think of ways to help Keir Starmer get rid of Johnson, and get a grown-up back into Number 10.

The problem for Johnson, and more importantly the country, is that in his case the fantasy is real. He is prime minister at a time of a life-destroying, economy-destroying pandemic, and of a Brexit which he won, but which he appears unable to deliver without adding to chaos and economic harm. On both Covid and Brexit, he seems dangerously averse to informing himself and interrogating the options properly, and woefully unwilling to apply the grip required when dealing with such serious issues.

He also shares with Corbyn a reluctance to accept responsibility for things going wrong; a loathing of saying sorry. When Johnson finally turned up for his press conference on Saturday, he apologised for disturbing our weekend but not for being hours late, nor for the leaks and the concern and confusion they caused, nor for yet again having important changes revealed to the media before Parliament. And of course he did not apologise for the many excess deaths, the billions spent on systems that are not working, or for now deciding on a policy he had recently contemptuously dismissed.

Neither Johnson nor Corbyn will thank me for pointing out what they have in common, but it is striking. As Johnson was busying himself with the shambolic lurch into another lockdown, Corbyn was suspended by the Labour Party for his reaction to the findings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission on antisemitism in the party, which had become the defining shambles of his time as leader.

The findings were damning, and Corbyn’s reaction to them was of someone determined to remind people of the quality he most admires in himself, but which is among the least admired by the public – his inability to change his mind, adapt to circumstances, or admit he may have been wrong.

Here is what he could, and should in my view, at the very minimum, have said in response to the report: “It is a painful report to read. It reminds me that on my watch, a problem became a crisis for the party, which damaged us, and led to a lot of hurt. We must all take responsibility for that, and as leader for most of that time, me more than most. I now wish the new Party leadership well in implementing the recommendations.” How easy would that have been? With that formulation, he didn’t even need to say sorry.

Instead, we got all the self-serving, weasel words that had made clear on so many occasions in the past that he couldn’t see what the fuss was about; the irrelevant nonsense about opinion polls showing people had an exaggerated sense of how many anti-semites there really were in the party; the sense that poor Jezza was more of a victim at the hands of a horrid press and horrid opponents, than the people hounded and harassed out of the party by his adoring supporters.

To have used something close to my formulation would have made him a part of the story, but not the main event. Corbyn, however, was determined to be the main event. He had to be relevant, and if the only way was by creating a problem for the new leader, who had had the courtesy to tell him in advance how he intended to handle the report, then so be it. It was time for the telly to show the “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” Glastonbury footage once more.

Even now, he could easily undo the damage done on Thursday. A short statement, saying he misjudged how his comments would be seen, that he was not seeking to undermine the report, or excuse the legal and other breaches it had recorded, and he wished the party well in healing the wounds this issue had caused. That is all it needs.

But he won’t do it. Vanity won’t let him. He’s been trending on Twitter again, and he likes it. The media are back outside his house for him to sneer at (I quite enjoyed the doorstep sneering too, in the days before I became a “former”.) His loyalist supporters are rushing to defend him, give him money for a fighting fund to go to court, portraying him as a victim, not as the man who helped to give the country Brexit and Boris Johnson’s majority. He’s back. He’s relevant. It’s great.

A chilling fact: Labour has lost all but three of the last eleven elections. Corbyn was a persistent critic of the leader who won those three. He did not like being criticised and challenged when leader himself and, indeed, some of us were kicked out of the party for insisting that self-righteousness and being right are not always the same thing.

And here is a third characteristic he has in common with Johnson, who likewise seems to believe that what is right is whatever he is saying or doing at the time. Johnson speaks of showing humility before nature, when what he needs to show is humility full stop: “Sorry, we did not handle the first wave well. We over-promised and under delivered. We preferred to see the world as we want it to be, not as it is. That is a mistake I have learned from, and will not be repeating.” It would do him the world of good. But there is as much chance of it happening as there is of Jeremy Corbyn saying it was quite an achievement for New Labour to win those three elections.

On a personal level, I have some sympathy for Corbyn. I wonder if he is struggling with no longer being centre stage. I know I did when I left Downing Street in 2003. From years of full-on activity, clear purpose, status, recognition, being part of a big team, there suddenly emerged a very different and very difficult life which forced me to dial down on all of those things. With the multiple dial-downs came one of the worst depressions of my life, and an episode of violent self-harm which led me, finally, to seek out proper psychiatric help.

It is hard to go from everyone hanging on your every word to wondering whether anyone is even listening. I cannot say for sure that that horribly dark depressive period in my life was a direct consequence of my having left the political stage, but the psychiatrist was in no doubt of the link.

What’s transpired since then doesn’t help. Whatever pride or pleasure I take in New Labour’s accomplishments, I look at the successive defeats for the party since, and ruminate that we cannot have been that good, or we would never have ended up with Corbyn becoming leader, and the party becoming defined as much by anti-semitism as by making change for the people and issues we care about. We would never have had Brexit, for surely part of our purpose had been to secure the UK’s place as a leading player in the EU. I look at Johnson, who as a Telegraph journalist used to stand at the back of my briefings and snort, and I think how the hell did that happen, that he is prime minister, and I am sitting on my sofa writing about him, and tweeting angrily every time he opens his mouth?

Corbyn has had two shots at the top job, and failed. He is still an MP, and by the accounts of many of his constituents a good one. But whether he likes it or not he is very much a member of the “former” club. He has had his day as leader. It is gone. The British people put paid to that, and he helped the process along.

If he wants to see another Labour government in his and my lifetime, he should embrace his inner “former”. Exit stage left and leave the platform to others. He would win respect galore if he could bring himself to do so with a variation of the words I suggest above.

In the meantime, I would like to send him a copy of my book on depression, which also records my recovery from political addiction. We could then meet halfway between Gospel Oak and Islington for the first meeting of the self-help group for expelled or suspended Labour has-beens striving to live without the relevance we once had. And perhaps we could put our heads together to think of ways to help Keir Starmer get rid of Johnson, and get a grown-up back into Number 10.

Living Better, from John Murray Books, is available in hardback, ebook and Audible

Photograph Getty Images