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The statesman and the clown

By Michael Carberry

Until very recently, the name Volodymyr Zelensky was probably unknown to most people outside Eastern Europe. How that has changed. A comedian who made his name doing impressions of the Ukrainian President would not be the obvious choice to do the job for real, but Zelensky has confounded his critics. Firstly, by leading the transformation of his country from a Russian puppet state into a western-oriented liberal democracy. Then came the Russian invasion. Knowing that he was personally targeted by Putin’s assassination squads, a lesser man might have accepted the American offer to spirit him out of the country to where he could continue his opposition from a safe distance. But that was not Zelensky’s choice. Disdaining the offer, he famously told his would be rescuers, “The fight is here; I need anti-tank ammo, not a ride.” Instead, he has not only chosen to stay in Ukraine but to remain in the capital, not hiding away but constantly on show, out in the streets, visiting his armed forces or victims of the Russian aggression in hospital. It is not just a remarkable show of personal courage; it is very largely by his example and inspiration that the army and people of Ukraine have shown such extraordinarily resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. While leading the defence of his country at home he has simultaneously conducted an immensely effective global PR campaign to keep the brutal reality of the Russian aggression daily in front of a world audience. In his direct video addresses to Western legislatures, he has known how to appeal to his audiences, quoting Winston Churchill to the UK parliament and Martin Luther King to the US Congress. He has not shied away from flattering the egos of western leaders like Boris Johnson if he thought it would help his cause. Not surprisingly he has earned immense respect and admiration both at home and abroad and received standing ovations from all those he has addressed. In Volodymyr Zelensky we have seen the comedian turned politician develop into a statesman of global stature.

While the Ukrainian President has been impressing the free world with his courage and his rhetoric, the United Kingdom Prime Minister was recently seen dressed in a yellow visi-jacket and hard hat pretending to fix solar panels! “Well,” it might be said, “government must go on. There is an energy crisis caused in part by the war in Ukraine and the PM is simply drawing attention to the importance of the transition to renewable energy.” But this is not a one-off occasion. Prior to the Ukraine crisis, almost every time the Prime Minister appeared on television, he was dressed up in a yellow jacket and hard hat, or a lab coat or a boiler suit, or an apron, visiting some establishment, shaking hands with staff and pretending to their job. But does it really require this sort of pantomime every time the government want to make a policy statement or convey a message?

In fact, this is a conscious strategy. The Prime Minister has always been an avid self-publicist but he famously avoids serious interviews where he might be asked difficult policy questions. Instead, we have the ‘photo-opportunity’ carefully staged to get a picture of the PM on the front page of the tabloids and always followed by the scripted sound-bite for the TV cameras. If Donald Trump’s tenure in office was categorised as ‘government by twitter’ that of Boris Johnson might equally be called ‘government by photo-op.’ Does this really matter?

Yes, it does. Anyone who has ever worked in government knows the pressures on ministers and, most especially, the Prime Minister. The constant stream of red boxes with their piles of policy submissions, draft letters, statements and speeches, briefing documents, Cabinet papers, intelligence reports, diplomatic despatches, public opinion surveys. If that were not enough there are the Cabinet meetings, Cabinet Committee meetings, consultations with individual Cabinet colleagues, private secretaries and senior civil servants, meetings with heads of state and foreign ambassadors, not forgetting the weekly audience with Her Majesty the Queen. Then there are the ceremonial duties of a head of government, state banquets, national ceremonies etc.

Of course, a prime minister needs to get out into the country from time to time, meeting ordinary people and businesses or visiting areas devastated by floods or other disasters. But these events take up an enormous amount of time and given his immense work-load, such opportunities tend be rare and in times of crisis they are among the first things to be shelved. But not it seems for this prime minister obsessed as he is with his own image. Which raises the question: while the PM is off on his visits to factories or driving tractors through walls who is governing the country? The answer it seems is ‘no-one’, or perhaps ‘everyone’. Ministers largely do their own thing without any central direction or control which is the main function of the Prime Minister. Such few good things as the government has achieved, like the rapid vaccine roll-out, have been down to individual ministers not the PM. It is that lack of leadership which accounts for the mixed messaging, the frequent U turns, the failure to sack corrupt or incompetent ministers or respond quickly or adequately to events like the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine - in short, the complete shambles at the heart of government. Meanwhile the whole circus is presided over – one cannot say ‘led’ – by a clown with permanently tousled hair and an inane grin who likes nothing better than to dress up and amuse the general public by silly antics.

But it is not just his lack of leadership or general buffoonery that make this Prime Minister unfit for the office he holds. He is seriously incompetent. His failure to master his briefs is evident from the frequent gaffes and misstatements – some of them, as in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, with serious consequences for innocent people. He has turned Prime Minister’s Question Time into a charade. Rather than even attempt to answer serious questions he prefers to play to the gallery by attacking the opposition. Johnson’s dishonesty is notorious, to the extent that parliamentarians have become so frustrated as to break parliamentary protocol and openly accuse him of lying. He has no loyalty. Having stabbed his long-term friend, David Cameron, in the back over Brexit he then did the same to the Democratic Unionist Party over the Northern Ireland Protocol in order to force through the EU Withdrawal Agreement and “Get Brexit done”, since when he has been trying to unpick the deal. His failure to sack incompetent Ministers like Priti Patel, whom even The Sun newspaper - normally a supporter of the government - categorised as “Priti Hopeless,” is a sign of his weakness. His decision to put his own unelected appointee, Dominic Cummings, in front of the press for breaking Covid rules rather than take responsibility himself was sheer cowardice. His preposterous claims, parroted by several Tory Ministers, that Britain is “at the forefront” or “taking the lead” in the current humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is deeply offensive to all those front-line states, not least Poland, who really are dealing with the crisis. His remarks to a Tory Party conference on 19 March, seeking to compare the heroic struggle of the Ukrainian people to defend their homeland from aggression with British people voting for Brexit, has sent waves of disgust around the UK and Europe.

Mediocrity in politics is, alas, not unusual but in his combination of arrogance, dishonesty, sleaze, weakness, cynical self-interest and ineptitude, Boris Johnson is surely without parallel. He is unquestionably the worst British Prime Minister in living memory. Lampooned by journalists, castigated by former Prime Ministers and Tory grandees, questioned by police over breaking his own Covid rules, only a person totally without shame, without integrity and without any concern for the welfare of his country or the dignity of his office could remain in the job – yet Johnson clings on like a limpet, allegedly boasting that it would take tanks on the lawn to remove him from Downing Street. His persistence is shaming to the country and the party he purports to lead.

Johnson was not elected Party leader for his ability, which many Tory MPs seriously doubted, but for his popularity – the belief that he could win an election, which he duly did and massively. But as other populist leaders have discovered, the gilt quickly wears off when the overblown rhetoric is not matched by the delivery. Despite his huge electoral victory, Johnson’s popularity has largely evaporated and for some time he has been trailing badly in the polls. In times of crisis, as during the Falklands war, people rally round the government. Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s polling has improved slightly since the outbreak of war in Ukraine. What is more telling is that a majority of Britons still think he should resign. It is only the sycophants and place men in the Tory party who enable him to remain in office. He will go in due course. The Tory Party is ruthless with leaders who cannot deliver election success. The question is when and how much damage will he do in the interim? There are those who say this is not the time to change the leadership. They are wrong. When the free world is faced with an attack on its fundamental values of liberty, democracy, and humanity, Britain needs to be led by a person of honesty, integrity and courage, not a weak self-serving opportunist. It needs a statesman like Volodymyr Zelensky, not a buffoon like Boris Johnson. His departure cannot come soon enough.


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