The government is on life support—will someone put it out of its misery?

As this zombie government stumbles on, its only aims seem to be to cling to power and make headlines. Time to send it to administrative Dignitas

March 01, 2024
Image: Alamy
Image: Alamy

What’s the right metaphor for British politics at the moment? Perhaps we could think of it as a stagnant pond—a layer of indeterminate slimy green vegetation spreading across the surface, as a distinctive foul odour drifts up from the decomposing organic matter below. Nothing stirs.

Or a body on life support? The brain stem has long since stopped sending or receiving signals. Relatives gather around the bedside to debate the ethical ramifications of ending, or maintaining, the permanent vegetative state. 

Dead man walking? An execution date has yet to be set, but the victim knows they’ve run out of appeals. They continue to eat, to do desultory morning push-ups and to shuffle round the exercise yard. Only in this version, there is no local nun to offer uplifting spiritual guidance. 

Pick your own simile or movie template. This parliament is finished, and everyone knows it. If we, as a country, had passed legislation allowing for assisted dying, now would be the time to ease this government out of its misery—a one-way ticket to administrative Dignitas.

As it is, the only pressing matter of debate in a virtually empty Commons chamber on Wednesday afternoon was a bill to amend an 1869 act under which London pedicabs are designated stage carriages. Even the government minister on duty conceded it was “a very thin bill dealing with a very small and niche issue.” But there we are—it was something to talk about other than Lee Anderson.

Nature abhors any kind of vacuous space. And so, in the absence of anything more pressing to divert us, we have the spectacle of former prime minister Liz Truss wittering on about the deep state which apparently removed her. Only any sane person knows it didn’t.

And we have former prime minister Boris Johnson, a fervent supporter of Ukraine’s war effort, standing on his head to argue that Putin-admirer Donald Trump would be good for, er, Ukraine. Perhaps, as with Brexit, he wrote two columns and got them muddled.

And talking of pointless vacuums, the home secretary was granted the splash in Wednesday’s Times to tell pro-Palestinian marchers that they had “made their point” and were “not saying anything new.”

You wonder how James Cleverly would have dealt with, say, William Wilberforce, who famously presented a bill for the abolition of the slave trade in virtually every year between 1789 and 1806. You can imagine the avuncular Cleverly taking him to one side around 1793 to advise him that the government had well and truly got the message and that the abolitionists should stop banging on about it. 

Or a quiet word in Nelson Mandela’s shell-like: “Nelson, old cock. We get it. Now pipe down.” Or Gandhi: “Chuck it in, Mahatma. No one loves a bore.” 

But, still, he made the Times splash and thus gave a momentary impression of the government, if not exactly doing anything, seriously considering beginning to think about possibly doing something.

Which, of course, it won’t. Any more than it will do about Thursday’s splash in the Daily Mail on Sunak saving us from mob rule.

The attorney general, meanwhile, busied herself asking the Court of Appeal, which is not short of work at the moment, to consider whether it was “unduly lenient” for a killer diagnosed by no fewer than five forensic psychiatrists as a paranoid schizophrenic to be detained in a high-security hospital “very probably for the rest of your life.” Cushy, or what?

It seems extremely improbable that the learned judges of the Court of Appeal will contradict the highly detailed 22-page reasoning of the judge in the case, and order the killer to be transferred to a prison. It’s certain that no prison governor would welcome having to look after a dangerous paranoid schizophrenic, who properly belongs in a high-security hospital, for the rest of his life. But, once again, the impression is given that the government is still doing something, anything. It made a headline.

And then—we can’t avoid talking about him, even if every minister wants to—there’s Lee Anderson, with his inflammatory and Islamophobic remarks about London mayor Sadiq Khan. If this government had a measurable pulse, this would not have been drawn out into a four-day pantomime of identikit government lackeys spouting the approved script: “It was wrong, but please don’t use the ‘I’ word.”

Are there any other signs of life? In the Lords, there is prolonged debate about a bill which will establish by law that you should definitely be thinking about Rwanda for your next winter break, because it is exceptionally safe and has gorgeous beaches. It doesn’t have gorgeous beaches, you say? It can only be a matter of time before a former home secretary proposes an amendment to establish by law that it does.

I believe I’ve mentioned the Pedicabs (London) Bill. And then there’s that bill allowing people to drill for more offshore oil, which experts say won’t make any real difference to UK energy bills. Other than that, there is a virtual legislative desert. Nothing stirs. To paraphrase the famous Monty Python sketch: “Mate, this parliament wouldn’t voom if you put four million volts through it. It’s bleedin’ demised.”

We are frequently urged to understand that our MPs are solely motivated by public service. They are such a talented lot they could easily earn double—no, quadruple—what they earn in politics, but a sense of duty requires them to selflessly soldier on in the public interest. 

But where does the evident public interest now lie? In a general election, followed by a government—any government—which has at least a modicum of energy and a smidgeon of ideas. We don’t ask for much. 

Rishi Sunak can’t honestly believe that his electoral chances are going to be improved by clinging on to power for a further seven or eight months. He’s toast and he knows it. A sunny future awaits—and not in North Yorkshire. His greatest public service now would be to declare this zombie parliament to have joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. Then we could all get on with our lives. He won’t, of course. Politics isn’t like that.

The playwright James Graham managed to create a great play out of the dog days of the Callaghan government. Maybe a future dramatist will produce a towering tragicomedy from the times we’re condemned to endure.

Meanwhile, the Quran is said to be very good on the virtues of patience. Forgive me if that comes over a little Islamist.