British Politics and Failures of Leadership

Photo: Getty. Retrieved from https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/elections/2019/01/who-ll-blink-first-stand-between-jeremy-corbyn-and-theresa-may

Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there

Robert Browning

Well, almost there. At time of writing, the end of March beckons. Our gardens and open spaces are reawakening, the evenings are stretching their limbs, the weather is more friendly. Time to look forward to summer? Alas, no. Like an evil sorcerer, Covid-19 has cast its malignant spell over us all, playing tricks with our perceptions of time itself. We are in a race against time to hold back and then defeat the disease, but rarely has time seemed so relative. For those on the front line, under-resourced and overworked, time must be a blur. For the rest of us, meanwhile, confined to our homes for much of the day practising self-isolation or social distancing, time is slowing.

We are currently in partial lockdown. Everything not directly coronavirus-related seems like an irrelevance. But politics and the political process do not stop (though parliament itself has now risen for four weeks). The government still governs and, perhaps more than ever, MPs of all parties have a duty to fulfil one of their key functions — scrutinising those in power and holding them to account.

Our government — like all governments around the world — is being tested like never before in peacetime history, led by a prime minister only months into the job. What follows is not about the government’s handling of the current crisis, but it is a reminder that, when we make our choice at the ballot box — or when we don’t bother, for that matter — we have no idea what perils await those we elect. Events, dear boy. Events.

It is a sobering thought, one that suggests an interesting question: which UK administration ranks as the worst of modern times — ‘worst’ in the sense of ‘dysfunctional, not up to the job’?

The Eden government (1955–57) made a calamitous error of judgement over Suez, and Eden was out of office before really getting his feet under the prime ministerial table. The short-lived Douglas-Home government (1963–64) is but a footnote in the history books. The 1970s was a troubled, tempestuous decade but — though we might argue all day about strategic direction and individual policies — it is less easy to make the case for gross incompetence. Rather the opposite, in fact.

For a long time, my answer to the question would have been the government of John Major. For someone who first took an interest in politics in the Thatcher era — with its endless refrain of ‘competent Conservatives / incompetent Labour’ — it was hard to resist at least a frisson of schadenfreude watching a Conservative government taking ineptitude and mismanagement to new levels — the Black Wednesday debacle, in-fighting over Europe (the prime minister characterised fellow cabinet members as “bastards”), the citizen’s charter, back to basics.

A sorry list of mostly self-inflicted woe.

So the award used to go to John Major’s government … until, that is, Theresa May came along in 2016, picking up the pieces of David Cameron’s twelve-month-long “strong and stable” government. She played a fiendishly tricky hand badly, like a poor poker player on a run of rotten luck. Brexit brought paralysis; like dementors in Harry Potter World, it sucked up all the government’s energy and left devastation in its wake.

To switch metaphors, May charted an impossible course with her ridiculous red lines and appointed hardline Brexiteers to steer the ship. Parliament was treated with utter disdain until the government lost its majority and was forced to concede ground in one area after another. Inflexibility was the watchword, her lack of even basic interpersonal skills brilliantly captured by John Crace’s Maybot caricature in The Guardian.

For nearly three years May’s government tacked to the right rather than seeking a viable way forward, a parliamentary compromise around which elements of all parties might coalesce. This sorry chapter will figure prominently in future histories of the Conservatives — the party of Stanley Baldwin, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath shunning pragmatic, moderate centrists such as David Gauke, Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve and instead embracing the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mark Francois and Priti Patel, blinkered, ludicrous and repulsive in equal measure.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — elected, and then triumphantly re-elected, by an unprecedented number of party members, many of them recent recruits — failed to lay a glove.

For a lifelong protester, Corbyn is a surprisingly poor public speaker. He is leaden and flat-footed at the Commons despatch box. With Prime Minister’s Questions the only bit of parliament that many voters see, this matters. Time and again he had May’s hapless front bench at his mercy; time and again he proved incapable of delivering a decisive blow. It was backbench heavyweights who hit hardest — the likes of Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper. The single most electrifying contribution of the last parliament was arguably Margaret Beckett’s speech of 4 December 2018 during one of the many, many Brexit debates.

I have argued elsewhere that Brexit confronted Labour with an impossible conundrum, but Brexit alone did not undermine Corbyn. The fact is, he has proved to be a poor leader. Corbyn is a campaigner, a maverick, an outsider; the march, rally or hastily assembled protest meeting is his comfort zone. He thrives on berating others for their lack of ideological purity but is deeply uncomfortable making the hard choices that leadership requires. To (slightly) rework an old saying, to lead is to choose.

The 2019 election result was neither shock nor surprise: despite nine years of austerity, the implosion of Cameron’s government and three years of utterly shambolic Brexit negotiations, the Labour Party consistently scored badly in opinion polls. The election campaign itself was awful — flat and uninspiring, as wet as the late-autumn season. We read of resources directed to the wrong seats, of poor campaign coordination. We can point to ill-judged policy announcements like broadband and WASPI women, and of a car-crash interview with Andrew Neil. But this runs the risk of deflecting the blame onto party officials or his de facto deputy, John McDonnell. The stark reality is that, in this highly presidential campaign, Corbyn wasn’t up to the job.

With so much hindsightery, it’s worth quoting a tweet from the excellent political journalist Steve Richards. It was written on 17 November, four weeks before election day:

Historians will wonder with good cause why J Corbyn and J Swinson gave B Johnson an election on the date he wanted and at the height of his prime ministerial honeymoon. They were leaders in a hung parliament with considerable powers to determine an election timing and much more.

Steve Richards, political journalist, 17 November 2019 (on Twitter)

Historians will also speculate on what led them to take the fateful decision.

Perhaps it was hubris — pride, arrogance, excessive self-confidence — which, as the ancient Greek playwrights worked out, always ends badly. Facing the pitiful May government in parliament, rarely a speech or intervention seemed to end without an impassioned demand for an immediate general election. But like Bernie Sanders predicting the “beginning of the end” for Trump after the New Hampshire primary in January 2020, it was empty rhetoric, nothing more than bluff and bluster, the cut and thrust of parliamentary swashbuckling. Along came Johnson and called their bluff.

The Liberal Democrats’ support for an election at least made some kind of sense: the party had a clearly articulated (if controversial) position on the central Brexit issue; they were for a time polling above 20% and had performed well in the earlier European elections; and they seemed genuinely to be on a surge, their tally of MPs growing by the week due to regular defections from the two main parties.

Add to the mix a sprinkling of groupthink. All leaders surround themselves with like-minded thinkers and ‘yes’-people. But the Corbyn phenomenon has been something else, more akin to a cult. Consider the signs: a devoted band of followers; a narrative setting out simplistic explanations for what is wrong with the world and equally simplistic solutions; intolerance of dissent and excoriation of non-followers. How ironic, then, that another of the features of a cult — a charismatic, supposedly omniscient leader — is something that Corbyn most assuredly is not.

The takeaway from the 1992 election was that it was John Major’s soapbox ‘wot won it’ for the Conservatives, an unlikely victory when defeat seemed on the cards: good old John, man of the people, doing things the old-fashioned way etc. And so, right on cue on the first day of the 1997 election, there he was on his soapbox, as if this would somehow make a 20-point poll deficit magically disappear. The strategy had spectacularly failed to differentiate between cause and correlation: A followed by B does not necessarily mean that A caused B.

Fast-forward to the 2019 election. The thinking seems to have gone something like this: Corbyn had a good campaign in 2017 (let’s ignore the inconvenient fact that Labour lost) so just do the same thing this time around. Let Corbyn be Corbyn, to borrow an idea from The West Wing: set him free on the campaign trail, meeting real people, generating a sense of momentum (sic) and all will turn out for the best. In other words, ignore the clear signs of popular disillusionment after years of parliamentary paralysis, ignore the polling evidence, ignore the catastrophic impact of the antisemitism charge on the leadership’s credibility, ignore the time of year — the short days and long, dark evenings, the cold, the rain. All will turn out for the best. Except, it didn’t.

In a few days — voting ends on 2 April — the Labour Party membership will have chosen a new leader and deputy leader. An election campaign that feels like it has been going on forever, without at any point igniting the interest of the wider public, seems like an irrelevance in the midst of a global emergency. It is, in fact, anything but. As was noted in the opening few lines, politics and the political process go on, and there is important work to do in holding the government to account. But there is another reason too. In the 1920s the Liberal Party went through a catastrophic status update — from one of the two great parties of government to third-party irrelevance. The next Labour leadership team may well determine whether the Labour Party goes the same way in the 2020s.

Click to read some thoughts on Brexit, the 2019 election and the state of British politics.