4 November 2021

‘This won’t cut through’ – the most pointless refrain in politics?


There is one truth in politics that everyone in Westminster has seemingly forgotten about: you cannot have hindsight in real time. You can try as hard as you like, but it is not possible to guess, as if by magic, what voters will care about, how much they will end up caring about it, and whether they will care about it enough to change the way they vote.

The overwhelming majority of what goes on in Parliament never cuts through with the public; indeed, some scandals that feel earth-shattering in the bubble will not even cause a ripple in the country at large. On the other hand, votes which every political obsessive took as a stray aside can end up infuriating millions.

A recent example of the latter was the vote on sewage being pumped into rivers; in the end, it made the news because social media had become inflamed by it, not the other way round. Then there is Owen Paterson’s resignation after breaking the rules on lobbying, No10 attempting to get him off the hook by changing the rules, then u-turning after all.

For the past few days, the questions on everyone’s lips have been: how much will this matter? Will people care? Will they even know it happened? It all feels like a waste of time, as trying to predict cut-through is a fool’s errand; everyone can get lucky once in a while, but for the most part it is as productive as reading tea leaves.

Of course, this has not stopped Westminster denizens from endlessly obsessing over what the Red Wall makes of this vote, the Blue Wall makes of that policy, and whatever else. It has become the national sport of SW1; every move from the government or speech by the opposition will be marked against the polls, ad nauseam.

It is interesting, both because it is entirely pointless and because it reveals a deeper truth about the way politics functions today. This is the first time in well over a decade that Britain has a government with a very comfortable majority, and no one really knows how to deal with it.

There is little institutional memory in Westminster, because of the high rate of churn and the fact that everyone must always focus on the issues of the day. What this means in practice is that few people remember what politics as usual is like. What we do know is constant chaos, and an instability meaning that, in theory, everything can be important.

Towards the end of the Theresa May years, it really did feel like every vote, every debate, every newspaper exclusive could bring the government down; as a result, everything was treated like it mattered, because it almost certainly did. This is no longer the case.

Boris Johnson’s government can afford to stumble and mess up and so can Keir Starmer’s Labour. Both parties will have good days and bad days and, for the most part, none of them will matter. Perhaps more importantly, it is not possible to predict which ones will remain storms in teacups and which ones will be looked back on as last straws. We will find out one day, but not now.

It is a problem because politics is, at its heart, about stories. Westminster is ruled by narratives; heroes and villains, dramatic falls from grace and unexpected redemption arcs. Journalists love nothing more than a cock-up which snowballs into a disaster, and MPs come into Parliament hoping that they will one day be talked about as a rising star. Everyone wants to be the voters’ whisperer; the person who spotted the ominous signs that things were never quite going as well as they seemed.

How can any of this happen if – to be blunt – nothing will really matter for the foreseeable future? Following politics is a full-time job and it felt justified when no-one knew what direction the country was headed towards. Stripped of immediate meaning, the daily SW1 soap opera feels hollow. What is the point of following every twist and turn, every briefing and every rumour, when deep down you know that none of it will matter in the long run?

This obsession with second guessing future cut-through is a hangover from the chaotic Brexit years, but it is also a symptom of a political class in denial. The dust is finally settling in Westminster and things have, at long last, returned to normal – and normal just so happens to be a little bit flat.

One day there will be talk of an election, or of a leadership contest; when that happens, things will pick up again. In the meantime, political obsessives must come to terms with the fact that for the time being, they really are stuck in a bubble.

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Marie Le Conte is a freelance political journalist and author of 'Honourable Misfits: A Brief History of Britain's Weirdest, Unluckiest and Most Outrageous MPs'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.