By any standards, August has been a momentous month for the UK. Our 20-year war in Afghanistan has ended in defeat. Our “special relationship” with the US has proved illusory. Our claims to champion freedom and democracy around the world have been severely undermined.
It would be reasonable to expect that our Prime Minister might make a televised address to the nation in such circumstances – as President Biden did in the US. Or give a press conference, as Biden did. Or a proper television interview, as Biden did. Any prime minister but Boris Johnson would surely have done so.
But Johnson (who has visited Afghanistan just once during his five years as foreign secretary and Prime Minister, and then to avoid voting on Heathrow’s extension) is a coward. As our soldiers risked their lives in Kabul he kept his head well below the parapet, occasionally sending an underling like Dominic Raab out to face the media.
He resorted instead to what are known in journalism as “pool clips”. Most days, even after he chaired a virtual G7 summit, a single television journalist was summoned to No 10 and allowed to ask him one or two questions – no more. That enabled Johnson to stand before the Union flag and deliver a few well-rehearsed soundbites that the BBC, ITN, Sky News and other broadcasters then shared.
The Prime Minister had total control of the situation. The journalist was invariably junior – no big hitter would turn up for such brief sessions. He or she was obliged to ask about the issue of the moment, and had no chance to ask awkward follow-up questions.
Occasionally, Johnson varied the formula. Once, he posted a video clip of himself speaking on Twitter. Once, he wrote a letter to the armed forces. But the net effect was the same. He was able to sanitise the dreadful events in Kabul, to put the best possible gloss on developments there, to accentuate the positive and downplay the disaster.
He rightly praised the “colossal exertions” of our armed forces, but ignored the reasons they were necessary. He talked of the 15,000 Brits and Afghans who were evacuated, but none of the thousands left behind. He claimed, unchallenged, that the sacrifices of our troops over the past 20 years were “not in vain”, and asserted – preposterously – that “we will now use all the diplomatic and humanitarian tools at our disposal to preserve the gains of the last 20 years and give the Afghan people the future they deserve”.
At no point have journalists had the chance to ask Johnson why his government failed to foresee the rapid fall of Kabul, or – despite the appeals of senior army officers – to plan for the evacuation of those Afghans who had helped the UK. As General Richard Dannatt, former head of the British army, said yesterday, the government was “asleep on watch”.
Journalists have had no chance to ask Johnson about Raab’s performance as Foreign Secretary; or what has become of all the military equipment we presumably left behind; or whether Carrie Johnson lobbied for the ludicrous evacuation of Paul “Pen” Farthing’s cats and dogs.
They have been unable to ask how the government can prevent Afghanistan once again becoming a safe haven for jihadists; or whether we will now be obliged to strike deals with the very Islamic fundamentalists we have been fighting since 2001; or the state of Anglo-American relations given Biden’s conspicuous failure to consult Britain before precipitously withdrawing US troops; or the future foreign policy of a country that has turned its back on Europe and banked so heavily on the “special relationship”; or the many other grave implications of our humiliating defeat for “Global Britain”.
Johnson has avoided detailed interrogation not only on Afghanistan. It has been his modus operandi throughout his premiership. He has rendered Prime Minister’s Questions farcical by shamelessly dodging Keir Starmer’s examinations. He avoids appearances before the Commons’s Liaison Committee for as long as he decently can. He kicks public inquiries on Covid and other pressing issues into the political long grass.
Despite spending £2.6m on a new Downing Street briefing room, he seldom gives proper press conferences. He has not given one proper television interview since January, and has not appeared on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme since October 2019. He studiously avoided an interview with Andrew Neil during that year’s general election and hid in a fridge to avoid Piers Morgan. He no longer does public walkabouts, having been accosted by irate members of the public early on.
Johnson did give press conferences during the Covid crisis, but on those occasions he was firmly in control. The journalists were calling in remotely. They had no chance to ask follow-up questions. They could not easily combine to pursue a single line of questioning. Being on live television, some were – regrettably – more interested in showing what they knew than eliciting information, or sought to ask four questions in one turn which allowed Johnson to pick the one he could answer most easily.
Thus Johnson has managed to avoid detailed questioning about the consequences of Brexit; about the potential break-up of the UK; about his reneging on the Northern Ireland Protocol; about increasing labour shortages; about his government’s failure to stop immigrants crossing the Channel despite “taking back control”; about his plans – or lack of plans – for tackling climate change, resolving the social care crisis, levelling up and restoring fiscal discipline. Or, for that matter, about his absurd “royal yacht”, Wallpaper-gate or Jennifer Arcuri.
By way of a substitute, Johnson frequently appears in vacuous photo-ops at factories or hospitals, on boats or bulldozers, often dressed in high-vis jackets and helmets, holding lobsters, table tennis bats or a hedgecutter. He uses those appearances to deliver prepared soundbites to a local television crew on the issue of the day. He thus gives the appearance of openness and accessibility, but it is all an illusion.
No previous prime minister has sought to evade media questioning to such an extent, but none have felt such a need to. Although Johnson is regarded as a “great communicator”, he is actually a liability. Witness his recent foolish comments about Margaret Thatcher helping the environment by closing mines, or needless needling of President Macron at June’s G7 summit in Cornwall.
Prime ministers must be held accountable for their actions, by the media as well as parliament. It is a fundamental condition of good governance, and it is high time newspapers and broadcasters fought back. The former should stop printing fatuous pictures of Johnson posturing for the cameras on their front pages. The latter should boycott No 10’s self-serving “pool clips” and demand proper access to Britain’s leader.