Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Alastair Campbell’

Why Cummings Must Go

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd May, 2020

Dominic Cummings 2Britain is going through a difficult period just now, as we enter the third month of COVID-19 lockdown, with millions of people worried about their future, not only because of the ongoing threat of the virus but also the danger of economic ruin. Many businesses, not least in the hospitality sector, face going under if they cannot soon start trading again and countless freelancers in the creative industries, as I know from my own situation, have seen their earnings plummet. But since last night, the political and media focus has been not so much on the government’s coronavirus strategy as on the behaviour of No 10 Downing’s Street’s unusual Special Advisor, Dominic Cummings. Though unelected, he is said to be the second most powerful man in the government, so strongly does Boris Johnson rely on his advice. Cummings was one of the architects of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU Referendum as well as the Get Brexit Done strategy in last December’s general election. He is unconventional in his dress and manners, and is in favour of blue sky thinking. He it was who called for “misfits and weirdos” to apply for jobs to work alongside him in Number 10.

No 10 Downing Street However, the reason he is all over the news at the moment is because he allegedly broke the COVID-19 isolation and “stay at home” rules in force when he and his wife, both of whom were infected with the virus, drove with their young son 250 miles to Durham to place the boy with his elderly grandparents. There is some dispute about whether he was already ill with coronavirus, or just his wife; either way, their action flew in the face of everything that Health Secretary Matt Hancock and other government Ministers and senior scientific and medical advisers have been saying over the past eight weeks, as well as demonstrating a curious lack of concern for the vulnerability of the grandparents. Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and other senior Conservative figures have been trying to make out that what Cummings did was alright. But for much of the public this looks like a situation of “one rule for the toffs in charge, another for the general population”. It also makes another dent in the Prime Minister’s reputation for allowing this to happen, if he he knew about it in advance.

A number of Tory MPs are understood to be livid about the matter and opposition party figures have been calling for Cummings to go. They are right to do so. Not only has he  apparently taken liberties when it came to the lockdown rules at a time when millions of Britons have been following them assiduously, at considerable personal inconvenience or cost; he also seems to have flouted what I call the Alastair Campbell rule, in honour of Tony Blair’s former Press guru, who realised that when he had become the story rather than the policies Blair’s government was trying to implement, it was time for him to bow out. If Cummings has any sense of decency he will resign. Otherwise, he should be fired.

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The Challenge for the Liberal Democrats

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 16th September, 2016

tim-farronAs Liberal Democrats gather in Brighton this weekend for Autumn Conference, it’s a timely moment to consider the challenges facing the party. Despite the turmoil within Britain’s official opposition party, Labour (graphically illustrated on BBC’s Question Time last night by a cat fight between John McDonnell MP and Alastair Campbell), the LibDems seem stuck in the national opinion polls in the range 6-8%. Pretty pathetic for a party that was in government (albeit in Coalition) between 2010 and 2015. Yet the position is nowhere near as bleak as that headline figure might imply. There has been a whole series of very strong LibDem gains in local council by-elections over the past few months; there was another one yesterday, in Derbyshire. These suggest that the party has bottomed out electorally and is now on the road to recovery (as Paddy Ashdown argues in today’s Guardian). Moreover, there is what I see as a golden opportunity in the parliamentary by-election due to be held in Witney on 20 October. Witney was of course David Cameron’s seat. Just a year after winning an unexpected overall majority in the last general election, David Cameron’s fall from grace has been spectacular. In the wake of June’s Brexit vote, he resigned as Prime Minister and then on the eve of a highly critical Foreign Affairs Committee report on his handling of the Libyan crisis, he resigned his seat. Interestingly, in West Oxfordshire (in which Witney is the seat of local government) Remain triumphed in the EU Referendum, which means that there must be many thousands of disgruntled voters there who in a by-election situation might be persuaded to vote for an explicitly pro-European party. That certainly won’t be Labour, given Jeremy Corbyn’s self-evident ambivalence about the EU. But it could be the Liberal Democrats, if the party seizes the opportunity, selects a brilliant by-election candidate with the right credentials and pours members and supporters into the constituency for an intense month-long campaign. Tim Farron is expected to make the clarion call for pro-Europeans at Brighton this week. Let that also be the trumpet sound for Witney, which, if handled well, could be a milestone in the LibDem Fight Back!

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We Don’t Need a Religious Right in Britain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th August, 2011

One topic I get my students at SOAS to discuss each year is the familiar proposition that Religion and Politics should never mix. Of course, historically in Britain they often did. Until the emergence of the SDP in the early 1980s, the Church of England was often referred to as the Conservative Party at prayer. And both Methodists and Quakers had a big influence on the old Liberal Party. But secularism has swept Britain over the past 50 years and the fall in church attendance has been mirrored by a distancing of most politicans from overtly religious standpoints. As Alastair Campbell famously said when he was the master of dark arts at 10 Downing Street, “We don’t do God.” — though in the case of Tony Blair himself, that proved to be completely untrue. One cheeky journalist is said to have asked Blair if he prayed with George W Bush. And of course, in the United States, religion and politics most certainly do mix, whether it is in the form of the liberal Christianity of Barack Obama or the disturbing beliefs of the Christian Right and the Christian Zionists, with their hatred of homosexuals, Muslims and many others who aren’t like themselves. Liberals in Britain have comforted themselves with the assumption that we don’t have that sort of Religious Right here in the UK, but recent trends have suggested that may not be the case. Maybe the Religious Right didn’t dare show its head above the parapet before, or simply didn’t get organised. That doesn’t mean it won’t. And if it does, both the secularists and those believers of moderate or even radical political views need to be prepared to rebut any suggestion that the Religious Right has God and morality firmly on their side.

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We Don’t Need US-style Smears in Britain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 22nd April, 2010

When Tony Blair was Prime Minister and Alastair Campbell his media advisor, British politics became familiar with US-style ‘spin’: presenting a story in such a way that made it favourable to the government. The climate of New Labour spin led to government advisor Jo Moore’s notorious email after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington declaring that ‘this would be a good day to bury bad news’. The then Conservative Party Chairman, David Davis, rightly protested at the tastelessness of that and called for an official investigation. So it is depressing that some Conservative Party advisors have borrowed another distasteful American political tactic in order to try to win the current British general election: the use of smear against opponents. We saw how the Republican party and its tame media in the US smeared Barack Obama, questioning whether he was really US-born, likening him to both Nazis and Communists, questioning his Christian faith etc. And alas we are now witnessing parts of the Conservative Press in Britain, notably the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph (which ought to know better) adopting similar methods in their smear campaign against Nick Clegg. Be in no doubt: this was a contingency plan, not a knee-jerk reaction, and some Tory party advisors have similar ‘bombshells’ up their sleeve for use during the campaign. When David Cameron appears on the second leaders’ debate tonight, he should disassociate himself from all this. We don’t want US-style smearing in Britsh politics and the media. It isn’t British and it will deeply damage the Conservative Party if the Tories are seen to be tolerating or even encouraging it.

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Phil Willis on Faith and Science

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 1st February, 2010

Alastair Campbell famously reined in Tony Blair once by saying ‘We don’t do God!’ Subsequently, of course, it became clear that whatever Number 10’s Spinmeister wished, Blair did God in a big way — and thus had even more to talk about with his pal George W Bush. Together, they were indeed on a sort of Crusade, not just to get rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but to defend what they considered to be good, wholesome Christian values. Campbell’s warning reflected the fact that Britain — in common with most of the rest of Western Europe — has largely become a secular society; only a small percentage of the nation’s Christians could be described as ‘practising’ in any true sense of the word. Nonetheless, within all political parties there is a nucleus of ‘believers’, whether they are Christian Socialists, Conservative CofE or Liberal Democrat Non-Conformists.

Indeed, the Non-Conformist tradition in the old Liberal Party was very strong and there are more than a few remnants today. Methodists, in particular, are well represented among party members, but so too adherents to smaller denominations or sects, such as the Quakers. After the merger with the SDP, at least some of that tradition survived and is well represented by the LibDem Christian Forum (LDCF), whicb notably runs breakfast events during autumn federal party conferences, when many less conscientious delegates are asleep or nursing a hangover. The LDCF has also instituted an annual lecture, named in memory of William Gladstone (who had no qualms about involving God in politics). Alan Beith, MP, gave the first lecture last year and tonight, at the National Liberal Club, the honour fell to the retiring MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, Phil Willis. The former headmaster gave a thoughtful reflection (devoid of his usual stock of jokes) on Faith and Science, arguing that scientists, politicians and theologians are all researchers into truth and act largely out of a desire to serve humanity’s best interest. As Phil said, Gladstone avoided locking horns directly with his contemporary Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution rumbled through the second half of the 19th century until breaking as a great storm in the 20th. Some people blame Darwin for the decline of religious faith, others the horrors of War. And in a sense, Nick Clegg is a product of our secular age. But one hopes that all liberally-minded people — whether of great, little or no faith — can unite round the values being promoted by the party: of tolerance of diversity and the championing of fairness as a basis for society.


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Goodbye, Mbeki — Good Riddance!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th September, 2008

When I first met Thabo Mbeki, I was impressed. He was suave, handsome and well versed in foreign affairs. Although he could never hope to be a second Nelson Mandela, I was full of hope when he took over as South Africa’s President. But disillusion quickly set in. One time, he came to the Parliament in Britain, where I asked him a question at a press conference, when I saw a totally different side to the man. He was such a control freak that he made Alastair Campbell look like Little Bo Peep. I asked some fairly inoffensive but nonetheless gently probing question, and he went for the jugular, outraged that anyone could challenge his infallabiilty. So I wasn’t at all surprised when he turned on his ‘enemies’ within the ANC, booting out people whom I had admired in the South African liberation struggle and the trade union movement. But the thing I will never forgive him for — nor should the world — was his willful negation of scientific knowledge regarding HIV/AIDS. Thousands upon thousands of South Africans died because Thabo Mbeki refused to accept that AIDS was brought on by the HIV virus, and denied free anti-retrovirals to patients for years. He should be damned for that, not retire with honour.

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