A school for scoundrels

Sunday National, 26th September 2021.

Who’s in and who’s out. Who’s up, who’s down – who’s down and out. Political journalists love cabinet reshuffles. I’ve always thought the palpable excitement – the obvious eagerness to be the first with the news, the first with the tweet, the ten-second scoop – communicates something important about how many reporters see politics. You can almost hear the interior monologue, as gossip sweeps through the lobby about who is hanging on and who is getting hung out to dry. “This is politics in the raw,” the voice says. “This is what it is all about.”

But it isn’t you know – and the fact so many people working in and around politics seem to think this way is responsible for the state we’re in. Raw politics is when some of the poorest people in the country wake up to find the government has lifted £20 out of their universal credit, just as their gas bill goes up £25. Raw politics is choosing to hike national insurance when you know it will hit the worst off hardest, and spare many of the richest from paying their fair share. Raw politics is fruit rotting in fields because the Home Secretary has a problem with foreigners. Raw politics is rising food prices and dysfunctional supply chains as a result of decisions this government chose to take. That’s what it is all about.

Do the future ambitions of Michael Gove or Rishi Sunak really deserve the passionate interest they attract, when compared with the consequences of their social policies? Does it really matter whether it is Sajid Javid or Priti Patel who are presiding over the austerity? Does it matter whether it is Liz Truss of Dominic Raab who is competing with Boris Johnson for the position of Minister for Being Rude to the French?

It is a theme I’ve warmed to before, but in politics, what you do is what you are. It isn’t what you say, or how wonderfully you say it. It isn’t the emotional energy you communicate. It isn’t the poised delivery, or the excellent soundbite you coin, or the tricky interview you deftly handle. It is what you actually do and how it impacts on real people in the real world which ultimately matters. Everything else is court politics. But as far as much of court is concerned, the parlour game is politics. What should be a sideshow occupies the main stage.

Empty lines are uncritically parroted. Policy announcements are tested for their mouthfeel rather than their human cost. Political correspondents recast themselves as theatre critics, commenting on the costumes, the acting technique, the plausibility of the casting choices, as if the Prime Minister’s main job was to act as the government’s impresario, and choosing who sits in the cabinet is just a jumped-up version of being casting director for an old-fashioned revue.

This is why Britain has a political culture full of people who want to be something rather than do something, with clear ambitions for themselves and only hazy ideas for how the country should be governed.

Against this backdrop, it isn’t difficult to see why the gusto which characterised coverage of the reshuffle has been so palpably missing in coverage of the government’s decision to take the axe to universal credit, just as the cost of living rockets. How can a decision guaranteed to beggar some of the poorest people in the country and their children compare with the latest meretricious twaddle from the Prime Minister about “levelling up”? Ladies and gentlemen, the soundbite has it.

It isn’t too difficult to fathom why this kind of court politics has such a grip over how politics in the UK is transacted and reported. Some of it comes from our genuine enthusiasm for political costume drama. Bureaucratic difficulties and technical challenges won’t sell newspapers, but gossip, a stand-up row, backstabbing, plotting, vengeance and the general jostling for power is a much easier human interest story – to tell and to sell.

Since Brexit, our newsstands and newswires have been crammed full of this kind of analysis. Its real-world effects have been palpable too. Theresa May gained and lost control of government, in great part because the intrinsic contradictions of Brexit were reimagined and resold to the public as problems with her personality.

Boris Johnson took office because he was supposedly “the man to get Brexit done,” as if the trade-offs the government faced were outgrowths of May’s rather stiff temperament, and would wither away if the right kind of chap took over Number 10. It was a lie, of course – a convenient lie which allowed the Tory Party to convince itself that the structural problems of Brexit were phantoms which could be wished away. Nobody is an easier mark for a practised fraud, after all, than someone who wants to be deceived.

It took the talents of a brazen liar first to convince the DUP that “there will be no border down the Irish Sea, over my dead body” – and then strike a deal with the EU 26 which traced just such a regulatory line across the water.

It takes the talents of a brazen liar to bluster on, as if no such commitments had been made, and to imply you chaps are being deuced unsporting to bring up all stuff I may or may not have said and done in the recent past. Ancient history, water under the bridge, moving on, forgive and forget.

I don’t care about his private life, but in public, Johnson deploys all the rhetorical tricks of an adulterer who has been caught in flagrante delicto, who tries to persuade his jilted spouse that she’s being dashed unreasonable to bring up all the times he’s broken his wedding vows.

The history of the American trade deal is vintage Johnson. For months, the prospect of striking a trade deal with the United States has been held out by the UK government as a critical goal for “global Britain.” Notwithstanding all the political trouble such a deal could generate domestically, the idea of a new accord with the yanks became the political symbol of Britain’s commercial virility for many Brexiteers with fantasies of floating off into the Atlantic.

This week, the Prime Minister returned from Washington empty handed, limply telling reporters that “the Americans do negotiate very hard.” His Environment Secretary, George Eustice had to admit on Sky News that such a deal is “just not a priority for the US administration.”

Johnson naturally told a different story back in 2016. “We could strike free trade deals with America!” he told a Vote Leave conference, as he sketched the wonders of life in Brexit Britain, unshackled from oppressive European supply lines and ready supply of essential workers. He saw rubberised chickens and bodybuilder steaks in the country’s future, and a tot of high-fructose corn syrup for every child.

Confronted by Channel 4 News about the gap between his rhetoric and the reality, the Prime Minister’s leaky memory lost track of yet another thing his mouth had once said. “Sorry that wasn’t me,” he protested. Apparently, he’d “always thought that a free trade deal with the U.S. would be difficult” and that it was only the “previous president of the United States” who suggested “we would do a trade deal rapidly.” “I said nothing on that” was the Prime Minister’s bald denial.

But of course there are other clips – there always are – of Johnson saying the exact opposite of this, claiming that “we hear that we’re first in line to do a great free trade deal with the United States,” and prophesying “we going to do a fantastic deal” just a few years back.

Electing Johnson was the Conservative Party’s way of trying to avoid the logical contradictions of Brexit. It was political escapism. Who better to maintain the illusion than a political escape artist, psychologically and ethically unencumbered by any need to honest or consistent in his dealings? But the Tory Party is about to learn that reality always catches up with you in the end. Even babbling flibbertigibbets with a flair for deception.

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