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  1. Election 2024
9 August 2021

What Boris Johnson could learn about “Global Britain“ from our superstar Olympians

Team GB is the embodiment of modern, diverse, inclusive Britain – a prime minister who mocks such values has no right to bask in their glory.

By Martin Fletcher

Thank you, Team GB. Thank you for giving Britain something to cheer about during the Olympic Games. Thank you for showing the very best face of our country in Tokyo. Thank you for distracting us from this wet and dismal summer, from the protracted gloom of the pandemic and, above all, from the ghastliness of our present Prime Minister and his government.

Your genuinely world-beating performances have enhanced the UK’s global stature, while Boris Johnson, for all his fatuous talk about “Global Britain”, has achieved the exact opposite.

You come from every country and region of the United Kingdom. You are black and white, gay and straight, Christian and Muslim. You have excelled at everything from riding and sailing, the sports of the wealthy, to skateboarding and BMX biking, the sports of the street. You are the embodiment of modern, diverse, inclusive Britain, and your successes have helped briefly to unite this fractured country. 

Again, Johnson has achieved the polar opposite. He has jeopardised the unity of the “United Kingdom” with his pursuit of the hardest possible Brexit. He whips up aversion towards the so-called “metropolitan elite”. He wages culture wars against the progressively-minded. He routinely demonises our former friends and allies in the European Union. He allows the Home Secretary Priti Patel to criminalise immigrants and refugees

He does this deliberately and without scruple. He prospers electorally by pitting Britons against each other. He practises the politics of division in order to keep his new, socially conservative Red Wall base fired up. He has minimal interest in bringing the country together and healing the wounds of Brexit.

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Johnson could learn some valuable lessons from our Olympians, from all those ordinary men and women who have achieved the extraordinary through their relentless pursuit of excellence and perfection.

They know that it is incredibly hard to win medals. They understand that to do so requires years of hard grind, dedication, pain and sacrifice, of labouring alone and in obscurity, of surmounting all manner of setbacks and adversity and recognising that there are no short cuts.

That is not Johnson’s way. He does not believe in the hard slog of serious politics. He does not recognise the need for coherent strategic planning and detailed policy development. He prefers to wing it. He likes to leave everything to the last minute, to muddle through or to leave problems to fester in the hope they go away. 

His decisions appear to be often based on Downing Street’s latest private polling, not the long-term health of the country. His horizons seem to seldom extend further than the next day’s headlines, and he seeks to govern through vacuous photo-ops and catchy slogans. He is all show, no substance, and desires nothing more than instant gratification.

Thus he promises to “level up” Britain, to make it the “cleanest, greenest country on earth”, to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all”. The problem is that he manifestly lacks the plans, skills, will, application and sustained commitment required to achieve any of those fine and worthy targets.

[See also: What is the biggest problem with Boris Johnson’s efforts to meet net zero?]

Our Olympians have also demonstrated the power of team work, of people pulling together to achieve a common goal. They know they would never have stood on the winners’ podium in Tokyo without the selfless support of their coaches, families and communities, of UK Sport and their colleagues in Team GB. 

Johnson does not believe in team work. As a journalist and politician it appears that he has always been an egotistical loner who sees his peers as rivals, not colleagues, people to be exploited not harnessed. Far from embracing the talented to advance this country’s interests, he purges good men and women from the Conservative Party and civil service for being insufficiently subservient. He has filled the cabinet with loyal mediocrities and reduced it to a rubber-stamping operation. He derides the collective wisdom and experience of parliament. 

[See also: After two years as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s unfitness for office has never been clearer]

Under his leadership Number 10 has been anything but a smooth, well-oiled machine. On the contrary, it has been deeply dysfunctional. It has been driven by feuds and factionalism, and hobbled by sackings and resignations. Even Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, now appears to be falling from favour. Johnson evidently likes it that way. He allegedly told Dominic Cummings: “Chaos isn’t that bad. It means people have to look to me to see who’s in charge.” 

And so the unfavourable comparisons between Britain’s Olympians and its wretched Prime Minister go on. 

The former stick to the rules: one false start, one cut corner, one failed drugs test, and they pay a heavy penalty. Johnson cheats, lies and flouts international laws shamelessly and with seeming impunity.

Team GB is the ultimate meritocracy. Johnson runs a borderline corrupt “chumocracy” where it appears that jobs, peerages and lucrative contracts go to friends, donors and the well-connected.

The Olympians treat their rivals with respect, while Johnson treats his with contempt. They are single-minded, while Johnson vacillates “like a supermarket trolley”. For the most part they are strikingly modest, while Johnson is a braggart. 

Above all, our Olympians wrapped themselves in Union flags after winning medals because they had earned the right to do so, and the country felt justifiably proud of their success. 

By contrast, Johnson has spent the past few years wrapping himself in the flag for narrow, nasty jingoistic reasons. He has done so to secure Brexit, to curry favour with Red Wall voters, and to embarrass those moderates and progressives who believe true patriotism should be gentle, understated and inclusive, not flaunted at every opportunity.

At some point in the coming days the Prime Minister will doubtless seek ways to bask in the reflected glory of our Olympic team, and even to suggest, perhaps, that their success is a success for a liberated, resurgent, newly independent post-Brexit Britain. The greatest service the medal winners could do for their country is to resist such a cynical ploy by a man who is the very antithesis of all they stand for.

[See also: UK Olympic success has come in spite of government spending, not because of it]

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