Boris Johnson and Donald Trump
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Good politicians are meant to take the drama out of life, not add to it

No politician can protect us from everything that goes wrong, but, says Gaby Hinsliff, when people’s lives depend on it, they could at least try

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

ANGRY. That’s the word Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband chose to describe his wife’s mood, in the sobbing phonecalls she is occasionally allowed to make from jail in Iran; not merely bereft or despairing, although she’s said to be close to a nervous breakdown, but angry, too. Angry at the injustice, angry at the seeming complacency of those she expected to help her, angry at the shambles she sees unfolding at home in Britain.

And who doesn’t feel rage, on her behalf? It must have been hard enough being separated from her three-year-old daughter, Gabriella, who is now being raised in Iran by grandparents, and the loneliness of being so far from home.

But for her own government to make a miserable predicament worse, as the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, inadvertently did by suggesting she was in Iran teaching journalists – giving the regime an excuse to hold her longer – when her husband and employer have always stressed she took Gabriella on a holiday to see relatives? That was rage-inducing, even before Johnson’s friend Michael Gove muddied the waters still further at the weekend by saying he didn’t know what she was doing in Iran, despite it now very clearly being the government’s position that she went out on holiday. What was always a sad story has morphed into an infuriating one because it’s such a betrayal of what we expect governments to do. As her husband puts it, with admirable restraint, she is reliant on her government “to know what it is doing”. Angry is barely the half of it.  

No politician can protect us from everything that goes wrong in life, and humans make mistakes. But like a good friend, governments should be there when you really need them – rich or poor, in sickness or in health, at home or abroad. When our lives are in their hands, we expect those lives to be treated with care and respect.

Boris Johnson has always had a gift for getting himself out of trouble, but it hasn’t always been obvious how much that depended on other people quietly picking up the pieces behind him

And yet we get Donald Trump barging around Asia, trading playground insults with a hostile nuclear power – after the North Koreans called him “old”, he referred to their leader as short and fat – seeming reckless as to whether this ends in war.

We get Brexiters breezily urging Theresa May to walk out of Brexit talks as soon as they get difficult, leaping off the cliff without a deal as if ordinary people’s jobs and rights and mortgages were just pawns in a game. And now we get ministers who don’t seem able to get the story straight even when a young woman’s life depends it, and a foreign secretary who had never even met Nazanin's husband, Richard, even though she's been in prison for a year and a half.

Good foreign secretaries tend to come across as dull and dry, because their job is to take the drama out of life, not add to it. Their successes are wars not started, stand-offs defused, deals done quietly and British detainees released before anyone really knew who they were.

Boris Johnson, however, has made a very successful career out of the polar opposite: being colourful, outspoken and eternally good copy for journalists, if a bit cavalier with the truth. He’s always had a gift for getting himself out of trouble, but what hasn’t always been obvious until now is how much that depended on other people quietly picking up the pieces behind him.

For every late-night joke to an adoring British audience about how the Libyan town of Sirte will be lovely for tourists once they’ve cleared up all the dead bodies, there’s some poor embassy underling left trying to explain it in Tripoli. For every throwaway line on Brexit lapped up by Telegraph readers, there’s a negotiation in Brussels that just got more complicated. And now there's a family whose life has just been made infinitely more difficult.

Caution, discretion and simple care for the welfare of others aren’t values we’ve necessarily learnt to prize in politicians before now. We get suspicious if they pause to clarify their thoughts before speaking, assuming they must have something to hide; we switch off in frustration when they give dry, guarded answers on telly. That’s why those who make a virtue, like Trump, of saying whatever comes into their heads got so popular in the first place.

But watching unfiltered politicians casually set the world on fire is turning out to be a hell of a lesson in the underrated values of care, caution and respect. Let’s hope it’s not too late to apply them in the case of Nazanin.


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