Lyndon Johnson famously said the first rule of politics is to learn to count. But there’s a second and equally important rule: never forget that the person you are dealing with may well be an idiot.
This is not a party political thing. I’ve not actually done a head count but I’d be amazed if what we might call the ‘idiot quotient’ is much different in any of the main parties.
Which brings us to Kim Johnson, Labour MP for Liverpool, Riverside.
At yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Ms Johnson asked:
‘Since the election of the fascist Israeli government in December last year, there has been an increase in human rights violations against Palestinian civilians, including children. Can the Prime Minister tell us how he is challenging what Amnesty and other human rights organisations are referring to as an apartheid state?’
Not a bad hit rate there, managing to sneak in pretty much every facile anti-Israel slur out there – although we have to mark her down for missing the blood libel. But top work with the reference to ‘fascist’ – just days after Holocaust Memorial Day provided a lesson in what actual fascism involves. Education really is lost on some people.
A few hours later, having been summoned before Labour’s chief whip, Ms Johnson returned to the scene of her earlier oration, only this time to ‘apologise unreservedly’ for her earlier words:
‘I was wrong to use the term ‘fascist’ in relation to the Israeli government and understand why this was particularly insensitive given the history of the state of Israel. While there are far-Right elements in the government, I recognise the use of the term in this context was wrong…I would also like to apologise for the use of the term ‘apartheid state’.’
Yesterday has been the highlight of Ms Johnson’s political career to date, and I imagine that is how it will remain. But there are nonetheless some interesting lessons from her words – or rather the reaction to them.
Most obviously, Labour is in very different hands now than under its former leader. There has been criticism on social media that Ms Johnson’s apology was clearly written for her by the Labour leadership and that it is unlikely she means any of it. But that misses the point. Under Jeremy Corbyn, her words would likely have marked her out for promotion. Under Keir Starmer, she has been forced to go back to the Commons and eat a large dose of humble pie.
Those of us who spent years doing our best to destroy Mr Corbyn’s political prospects using the secretive, cunning ploy of revealing what he had said and done should give Sir Keir credit for his determination to deal with these people – Ms Johnson is an unashamed Corbynite – and to clamp down when they embarrass him and his party.
But there’s a problem with this. There have been calls for her to have the whip removed. Yet Ms Johnson is not alone in holding such views. Quite the opposite. What she said, before being told to unsay it, is standard stuff on the left now. ‘Fascist Israel’ and variations on that theme are part of the toolkit of what it means to be a British leftwinger, along with ‘nationalise the utilities’ and ‘men can be women if they say so’.
Idiotic as her words were, they were unexceptional in that sense. She was merely giving voice to what are held as obvious platitudes by so many in her party. Ms Johnson does not appear to be one of the hardcore Jew-haters who really do still poison Labour, just yet another unthinking drone who hasn’t grasped that there is a link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
On the one hand, Sir Keir is going to be spending an awfully long time forcing the rest of the Kim Johnsons in his party to apologise for what they say, as only a few will realise that they need to keep their views of Israel to themselves if they want to get on in the post-Corbyn Labour Party. On the other hand, most will simply plough on, either because they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge that Saint Jeremy of Against All Kinds of Racism has gone, or because they are too dense to work out that every time they speak they hand Sir Keir the chance to show everyone else who is boss.
None of this excuses Sir Keir’s own behaviour under Corbyn – serving in a key role in his Shadow Cabinet and doing nothing of substance to support those who fought against him. But that’s another issue. Thanks to Ms Johnson, we know that Sir Keir is absolutely serious about putting the lid on at least one part of the idiot quotient.
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