19 July 2018

Pity the leader of this zombie government


We have, it is now clear, a zombie government, neither fully alive nor properly dead. It is a government that exists only because there has to be some kind of a government and these are the people that fill its benches.

This is a government trapped by its own feebleness. At times you might even pity Theresa May. She must see off two rebellions inside her own party. The first, and more formidable, is run by Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ERG crew — the Brexit Massive, if you will. The second is led by the indefatigable Anna Soubry and her small posse of Remainer Refuseniks. Everything the prime minister does to pacify one group of rebels feeds and encourages the other.

Unless the prime minister shows the ruthlessness required to crush one or other of these rebellions, she is doomed to go nowhere. On current form, then, you’d expect a summer of going nowhere.

All this before the EU 27 have even delivered their verdict on the latest proposals emanating from Whitehall. Those proposals, however, are subject to parliamentary amendment and so no-one, I think, can say with very great confidence just what the British government is actually proposing right now. It is all a muddle, a cuddle, and a stinking great shambles. Summer cannot come soon enough.

Indeed, it would have been better if the parliamentary holidays had come sooner. And, indeed, if they lasted longer. The only thing, in this present crisis, worse than parliament on holiday is parliament at work. The government’s attempt to curtail the current session may have been an admission of embarrassing weakness but it was at least the right idea. Little good can come of more parliamentary shenanigans right now. A summer break, in which period some kind of perspective and, if we are blessed, modest sanity, reasserts itself will be no bad thing. It may even be the best we can realistically hope for.

Tellingly, in the monthly question asked by YouGov, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn each trail “Don’t Know” on the question of who would make the better prime minister. It is difficult to think of the last time there was such a cross-party crisis of leadership in British politics. When times are bleak, the third party is supposed to seem more attractive simply because it is neither the Conservative nor the Labour party.

This ought, in theory, to be a moment for the Liberal Democrats. Instead Vince Cable — who, it may surprise you to discover, is still actually the leader of the party — missed a crucial Commons vote this week because, well, because that’s what you’d expect from the Lib Dems these days. Even when there’s a chance of defeating the government, the Lib Dems aren’t there. Cable’s leadership seems afflicted by a political form of glandular fever.

So perhaps it is not a surprise that Ukip are enjoying an uptick in support. Disaffected Brexiteers, appalled by the now-ruined Chequers “deal”, are registering their protests all over again. If this requires them to endorse, even as a matter of theory rather than practice, a party that has dropped all pretence it is not a racist, nativist, organisation then so be it. Naturally it is Remainers who will be blamed for this because the first law of Brexit is that the Brexiteers are pure in heart and in no way responsible for their own actions or preferences.

It now seems obvious that Leavers have not fully come to terms with winning. For as long as they thought they would lose the referendum they were, on the whole, quite cheerful. They had given it a good go but defeat was always more likely than victory. And, in any case, a good defeat would leave them well-positioned for a second, and decisive, attempt on the summit of Mount Brexit.

But victory changed that. Suddenly they were charged with organising and implementing a Brexit they had not, most of them, ever thought likely to happen. What should Brexit actually mean? The answers have been surprising. Options that seemed attractive before the referendum — Norway! EEA! EFTA! — were suddenly, and for no good reason, deemed as bad as remaining in the EU. Britain cannot be a rule-taker — something Remain had warned about — and so half a loaf became less attractive than no loaf at all. Brexit must be harder and purer than anything promised before the referendum. No matter the cost.

Hence the increasingly grandiose — and ludicrous — piffle peddled by the likes of Boris Johnson. Brexit, it turns out, is simply a matter of national willpower. If you question any of this, if you insist that sometimes the detail really does matter, you don’t “believe” in Britain. Close your eyes, make a wish, and jump. The landing will be fine.

In those circumstances, it’s reasonable to feel some sympathy for the prime minister. She has hardly shrouded herself in glory these past two years but as the deadline for some kind of deal, some kind of settlement, inches ever closer you’d need an iron heart not to feel some kind of pity for her. She is in an impossible position, tasked with leading an impossible party towards an impossible objective.

Meanwhile, progress on all other fronts is stalled. Remainers are angry and Leavers feel betrayed. There is no easy or obvious way of bridging the gap between them. The divisions revealed by the referendum have become sharper and deeper as time has gone on. Politics has always been a partisan business but it is not always the zero sum game British politics has become. Polarisation is the only game in town.

A long recess beckons before parliament reconvenes in September. The idea this break will lead to a much-needed cooling of passions seems desperately fanciful. On the contrary, tensions will simmer all summer before coming to a boil once again in the autumn. At which point there will be some kind of political explosion. Because the status quo cannot endure very much longer, it will have to be replaced by something. Just not necessarily by anything better.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.