The prime minister, the foreign secretary and the chancellor could all go at any moment. Yet the British press—and public—seem more bored than concernedby Tom Clark / October 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
I’m not sure if it is because times are too serious, or too frivolous, but political infighting just isn’t making waves like it used to.
The bitter infighting between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair was scorched into the memory by breathless news reports about how the government had been “rocked.” But who can now recall what the feuding Downing Street neighbours were really arguing about, except who got to live at which number?
If your memory stretches back to the 1980s, you might still be able to recall days of frenetic reporting about—younger readers, I jest not—the way a decision was reached on the procurement of helicopters. The so-called “Westland affair “cost Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan their Cabinet jobs, and fuelled sudden speculation about whether Margaret Thatcher, then at the very zenith of her powers, could survive.
A few years later, jaws dropped when Thatcher and her cheerleaders in the Daily Mail turned against then chancellor, Nigel Lawson, over the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. He went—and then within a year the repercussions had done for the Iron Lady herself.
The current episode of rats-in-a-sack syndrome features some of the very same figures—grandees including Lawson and Heseltine, for example—as well as virtually all the current Cabinet. The most embroiled individuals are the most senior of the lot: the prime minister, the foreign secretary and the chancellor. Questions are asked daily about whether each of them—or indeed any of them—can go on.
And the subject of the fighting is far, far graver than anything from the Blair/Brown era or the Thatcher years. It concerns—in the independent judgment of two thoughtful and prominent Tories that I have spoken to in the last week—the fundamental strategic dilemma facing the country.
Forget the exact details of hard and soft Brexits, customs unions and “no deal” posturing. The root dilemma, my two contacts agreed in separate conversations, is whether the UK is going to continue to remain fundamentally aligned with Europe or not. The Cabinet is divided, and furthermore—the two also agreed—the prime minister is simply too weak to force a decision.
By the standards of those 1980s spats about helicopters, or the Blair/Brown soap opera that was once known as the TeeBeeGeeBees, today’s disagreements at the top are fundamental. They are also urgent: if Britain is led by a government which is unable to settle what it thinks about the country’s place in the continent and the wider world, then perhaps we should not be surprised if the Brexit negotiations look to be in a bit of a mess.
With the Article 50 clock ticking down to Brexit in March 2019, the UK really does need to get on and decide whether, for example, it gives priority to its commerce with the continent, or new trade deals with the world outside. It needs to decide—but it can’t.
We really should care about the current political unravelling like we’ve never cared about any before— not only as journalists, but as citizens. But even the media, which always used to be obsessed with who is up and who’s down, is struggling to sustain real interest. The tittering about how far Boris Johnson can push things pops up the agenda for a day, then fades into the background the next.
Why might this be? As I suggested, it could equally plausibly be because times have got too serious—or become too silly.
On the “too serious” interpretation, perhaps the gnawing sense of a country as whole being slowly humiliated by its erstwhile partners in the European Union simply makes our internal politics feel too small to care about. When current affairs programmes are given over to increasingly grave questions about whether or not Britain’s aeroplanes will be able to take off in 18 months, whether or not Michael Gove could be drafted in to replace Philip Hammond at No. 11 seems a little beside the point.
I am more inclined, however, to the view that it is the sheer frivolity of our era which is killing off interest in the tumult at the top table. The President of the United States takes to Twitter to accuse his own Secretary of State of “wasting his time” by attempting to use diplomacy to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. The same Secretary of State is rumoured to have called the President a moron, prompting the President to suggest the pair compare IQ test results Back at home, Richard Tice, the co-chair of Leave Means Leave, is invited on to Andrew Marr’s sofa where he urges a chancellor drafting a difficult budget to take “some happy pills”.
In a world where it has become mainstream to advocate chemically-induced faith in a more prosperous future, who cares whether the latest manoeuvre from the foreign secretary goes beyond the wearingly-familiar story of “Boris being Boris”? In times gone by, British hacks would have been gripped by the drama, and the public would have been concerned about who was in charge. But in Brexit Britain, during the times of Trump, it somehow feels more appropriate to titter, then look away and find something else to talk about. Pass the happy pills indeed.