Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

March of the incompetents: why are politicians so useless?

Our overlords have no idea what they're doing, and they are not ashamed
November 10, 2018

It was once said that all political careers end in failure. This now seems optimistic: most of them simply carry on.

We have an overload of failure in politics at present, it is saturated in failure, it has an embarrassment of it. There is the monumental kind, of course, like invading a country for a dud reason or calling a referendum you can’t win: that’s always cropped up on occasion. But also on the rise is the kind of obvious, flunking-a-school-test sort of failure that reveals a terrible ignorance, or a basic misunderstanding of one’s brief.

This week’s howler came from the Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, who confessed he “hadn’t quite understood” how reliant Britain’s goods trade was on the Dover-Calais crossing. Britain, he mused, was a “peculiar, frankly, geographic economic entity," or in other words, an island that is quite close to France, the entry point to its biggest trading partner.

Last week it was Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, turning up to talk with a room full of editors and taking five attempts to come up with the name of a single female newspaper columnist, and even then remembering just the one. He also admitted—this man in charge of overseeing the country’s media—that he doesn’t subscribe to any British papers or magazines, before sniffily adding that he “wouldn’t answer pub quiz questions,” a line which might have been more effective if he hadn’t just tried quite so disastrously to do so.

A few weeks earlier there was something more serious, when the Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley told a journalist that on accepting her post she had not known that “people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa,” the fundamental fact of politics in the province.

And not long before that, the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, when asked how the Kremlin should respond to the expulsion of 23 of its spies, publicly urged Russia to “go away and shut up." A spectacular gaffe from a supposedly professional performer in international relations.

Now, before you point out that politicians have always messed up—no doubt Cicero occasionally forgot the price of a pint of milk when put on the spot—I can just about remember a time when this still had consequences. And you don’t need to go back to a lost postwar golden age when several ministers round the top table would have written important books. No, I’m thinking in particular of poor Chloe Smith, the junior minister fed to Newsnight to explain the Treasury’s U-turn on fuel duty rises, who was mauled alive when she struggled to explain where the money for the freeze would come from or when she had heard about the policy. That was in 2012. The interview, which stood out as infamous, was said to be “career-ending,” and she was indeed relieved of her economic brief within months. Six years on, it looks like just another evening in British politics.

For there is Williamson, undaunted, undamaged, cheerfully and incompetently stonewalling questions on live television until cut off by Richard Madeley. There is Bradley, career prospects intact, meeting Northern Ireland’s main parties in early November in an encounter described as—what else—“an embarrassing waste of time.” There is Diane Abbott, whose struggles with basic arithmetic have become a reliable feature of her interviews, sailing magnificently on, her days equally un-numbered. Smith must be raging.

The received wisdom is that the public and the media have recently become more tolerant of slip-ups because they are now overshadowed by bigger political battles—Brexit, the event horizon that absorbs all else, and to some extent the rise of Donald Trump. But it isn’t true. We have in fact become less tolerant: the more urgent and unwieldy the larger crises, the more viciously we focus on the small but certain, the interview stumble, the awkward dancing, the badly eaten chips. Bradley’s slip-up got a week of headlines, and a viral meme on Twitter, #ThingsKarenBradleyNeverKnew. When an MP flubs an interview, the internet takes note.

No—it is the politicians themselves who have changed. Two weeks of bad headlines was once enough to finish a career. No longer. Now it is something to take in your stride. A shamed minister in the centre of the storm now treats the media as celebrities do the paparazzi: they sweep on by, rolling their eyes. The truth is they’re not shamed at all, because they’ve forgotten how to be.

Mention their terrible drubbing on television? A haughty brush off. Question them about a political pratfall? Why are you so obsessed with them? “Disgraced” MPs now simply carry on with their day the best they can, condemnation in every headline over breakfast, a thrashing on the World at One, then lunch, before turning up to a television studio for a mildly inconvenient evening beasting. Parties used to regard major broadsheets as important political barometers; now they regard them as they might old men grumbling about the weather.

It is a strange evolution for politicians, this new ability to take a public shaming, for weeks, and suffer no consequences. Perhaps it has something to do with social media: attack politicians long enough for indefensible reasons—their race, their gender, their religion—and they’ll grow hard, protective shells. Perhaps it has something to do with the precarious main parties, balanced perfectly in their weakness, and their wobbly leaders who feel the need to reward loyalty over competence. Or perhaps it means something more troubling. Perhaps the reason politics is stuffed with incompetents is because the media is weakening. It still shouts, but no one hears. It can no longer hold them to account. That really would be a catastrophic failure.