22 May 2019

British politics is broken — and about to get a lot worse


That sound you hear is the clattering of tumbrils laden with politicians who long ago exhausted the public’s patience. These elections to the European Parliament are going to be a massacre; a moment when the inadequacies of both traditional parties are all too evident. This is going to be ugly and little good can come from any of it.

In one sense, it will be a moment of catharsis. The elections are dominated by Brexit and the failure of our political class to find a solution that both upholds the referendum result and guarantees a measure of continuity that, amongst many other concerns, would reassure British business there are at least some adults in the room. There will be rage aplenty tomorrow and ample measures of despair too. To think that it has come to this; to think that this is how it will be for some time yet.

But because this is Brexit, even the endgame offers little relief. Rather it is merely the end of one nightmarish phase that will — must — be followed by another. If you think these past three years have been a miserable time for British politics, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Votes for the Brexit party, like votes for the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, and for Change UK are not just about Brexit. They should be considered, in all their rainbow glory, a collective howl of despondency; a national declaration that this should not be as good as it gets, that there must be some — any — alternative. These are not extravagant hopes even if, in the current climate, they inevitably seem like that. A modest dollop of competence and a plausible level of coherent ambition is all people demand.

This, however, is an era of reduced expectations in which even standards previously considered the bare minimum qualification for public office seem so ambitious there is little real prospect of them being reached. The public long ago decided that Theresa May was not the answer but, even as it delivered a crushing verdict on her performance in the 2017 general election, it did so while also withholding approval from Jeremy Corbyn. The public knows he’s not up to the job either.

Nor, however, can it trust any of the pretenders to May’s crown. Boris Johnson, the front-runner, is not the genial cove elected Mayor of London more than a decade ago. He was a lark and a card then; now he’s as polarising a politician as there is in Britain. Which, given the state of British politics, is saying something.

But if not Boris, who? Michael Gove might have the intellectual chops and the reforming zeal to make a decent fist of governing but, to put it mildly, it is not evident the environment secretary enjoys the public’s confidence. Of the other contenders, Dominic Raab presently offers little more than Johnsonism without the jokes; slashing income taxes is always the easy option for Conservative politicians who’ve yet to locate any ideas of their own. Nor do Jeremy Hunt or Sajid Javid necessarily excite; the latter has been on manoeuvres too obviously and for too long while the former’s reinvention as a true-believing Brexiteer persuades almost nobody. The best that can be said of either man is that they are not the other, more obviously polarising, candidates.

None of May’s would-be successors promises the kind of refreshment the country badly needs. Those that promise better government lack the ability to connect with the public; those that might connect with the government lack the stature to impress in government. The Tory party is breaking itself and it will take an uncommon politician to put it back together.

In this, the Tories are merely emulating a Labour party plainly not fit for opposition let alone government. Having indulged their own worst instincts, Labour are saddled with a leadership cadre that cannot, will not, connect with the country. It is remarkable, given this, that the Tory party seems likely to make precisely the same mistake.

Nevertheless, it is wearily appropriate that even the alternatives to the traditional parties are, many of them, wholly inadequate. Change UK have offered a masterclass in how to disappoint. Not Being Corbyn and Not Being May ought to be the start of something; instead the Tiggers have demonstrated a lack of seriousness that would be entertaining if it weren’t such an obvious missed opportunity.

No wonder Nigel Farage struts across the stage, cackling and barking and promising a revolution of a sort British politics has not hitherto endured. Brexit is the largest part of Farage’s “sod them all” argument but by no means the only ingredient working here. The Brexit Party will send a message when it wins tomorrow’s elections but, typically, that message will be misunderstood: it is not just about Brexit, it is about everything. Farage doesn’t bother with answers — such things are beneath him — but as the articulation of a broken body politic he more than fits the bill.

And, in some ways, who can blame those who flock to Farage’s banner? When all the notionally plausible options have been exhausted or revealed to be pitifully inadequate, voters will be tempted by alternatives that in happier times would have been thought wholly implausible.

It matters little that no one campaigned for a no-deal “WTO” Brexit in 2016. That was then and this is now. The Tory party will shortly become — if it has not done so yet — the party of no deal too. That would at least offer a clean, quick, end. But then so does the guillotine.

“Make it stop” is the order of the day and the public, I suspect, increasingly cares little how it is stopped so long as it ends. No wonder the centre ground has been hollowed out. Partisans on all sides define themselves less by their own beliefs than by their opposition to those who do not share those beliefs. Your victory is very much less important than their defeat.

That helps explain why the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the Government has no chance of garnering the parliamentary support it requires. Many of the objections to it are contrived and many of them require those holding those objections to contradict their own previously-held positions. But what of it? The Prime Minister’s weakness — sabotaged by her own backbenchers — ensures she lacks the muscle to command. There is something painful and pitiful about Theresa May these days. She is a ruined prime minister leading a ruined government in a ruined parliament.

Anyone who thinks decapitating the Government and starting again will magically produce a solution, or a way out of this maze, is indulging themselves in that most ancient of forlorn hopes: the idea that this is a problem of personnel, not one of policy. It is not a lack of will that has brought us to this broken place but, instead, the irrefutable logic of the Brexit process itself. It is not being done well because it cannot be done well. There is no perfect Brexit because something has to give.

Just what will give and at what price remains something to be determined but I’d suggest that if you think this is as dark as it can get you risk seeming a cock-eyed optimist. There is a storm brewing and I suspect this is just the start of it.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator.