It’s the inadequacy that really kills you. Once you get past the constant lies, the self-interest, the cynicism and the irresponsibility, it’s the inadequacy that finishes you off. It’s just so low-grade. From where we’re standing, mediocrity would seem a towering achievement, way up there above the clouds.
Yesterday, Boris Johnson tried to entice Labour into accepting an election by offering them the chance to scrutinise his Brexit legislation. “If you commit to voting for an election next week,” he wrote to Jeremy Corbyn, “we will make available all possible time between now and 6 November for the withdrawal agreement bill to be discussed.”
The whole letter is the most dreadful babbling dimwit nonsense. It’s his bill. It’s not some kind of privilege for people to be able to debate it. It’s a precondition of it passing. This is like threatening to cancel your birthday party if no-one comes.
But even that looked like a triumph of statecraft next to what followed. By the time the evening came, Johnson was insisting he would go on strike and basically shut down his own government, unless the opposition did what he wanted.
Again, the morality can’t help to sneak into view. There are so many problems that need fixing in this country – crime, poverty, routine winter NHS crises, an economy trundling along on the zero line. This week, a container was found with the bodies of 39 people, all immigrants from China. It was grotesque proof of the utter failure – the life-ending, murderous failure – of our hardline immigration policy. Anyone with any decency who found themselves with political power would be seeing what they could do to improve things. But the person in charge of the country can’t be bothered to even govern.
And yet that again gives him too much credit. We’re used to the moral abyss that this government operates in. Instead the thing that’s striking is how completely basic and inane its strategic gambits are. He is shutting down his own administration as a punishment to others. He doesn’t even seem to understand what oppositions do or what their motivations are. They are opposed to his bills. They are opposed to his government.
Over in the Treasury, chancellor Sajid Javid is now operating at the peak level of discombobulation. He told the Peston programme on Wednesday night that there was definitely going to be a Budget on November 6th. Then Treasury advisers announced last night that it was cancelled. It seems to flick in and out of existence with every passing day.
God knows what’s in it, if anything. After all, he didn’t see why there’d be a need for an economic impact assessment on the Brexit deal, because it was “self-evidently in our economic interest”. Perhaps the documents are simply descriptions of various magical spells which the government can use to know the future. A toad, the eye of a newt, a blind-worm’s sting.
On the most basic matters of governance, ministers churn out presentational hogwash with no content, detonate it as a warning to their opponents, and then try to bring it back to life. It’s a closed ecosystem of guff.
John Maynard Keynes once suggested that a fiscal stimulus could work by getting labourers to dig holes, chuck in old bottles with banknotes inside, and then leave it to the private sector to dig them out. That’s basically the system of governance the Conservative party has adopted – a postmodern cycle of nonsense policies, inserted into the earth, dug up again and then refilled.
Just before his Sesame Street threats, the prime minister actually managed to win a vote for a Queen’s Speech. That’s hardly unusual. Once upon a time this was the litmus test to establish whether a party could govern at all. Now it is considered some towering moment of vindication.
They scraped it by 310 to 294. But what did it mean? If the government succeeded in passing a legislative agenda, why was it now refusing to put forward legislation? If it had secured a parliamentary programme, why was it calling for an election?
“If the leader of the House wants an election on December 12th, can he explain to the House what the purpose of the Queen’s Speech was?” Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake asked.
Of course, there wasn’t one. The Queen’s Speech was just a glorified press release, a package of empty legislation which was never intended to be passed, but simply to use up a bit of time – to make it seem as if they had a plan.
In response, Jacob Rees-Mogg reached ever-higher levels of mad self-congratulation. Not only had the Queen’s Speech passed, he said, but one of the bills had gotten through – gasp – second reading. “What a triumph it has been already,” he said, without a hint of irony. “It is hard to think of a greater success politically in modern history.”
It’s all so embarrassingly low grade. From the attacks on parliament, to the nonsense about a ‘surrender bill’, to the political speeches in front of police recruits, to the constant insistence Johnson would meet a deadline he never could, to the attempt to paper-over the fact he hadn’t, to his inability to admit there would be checks between Britain and Northern Ireland, to the threats about an election, to the self-sabotaging idiot tactical gambits, to the on-off Budget, to the pantomime Queen’s Speech, to Mogg’s back-patting over nothing. It’s just so nakedly cynical and shambolic.
Who knows? Maybe it’ll work. People seem to think it will. Half the newspapers, including some which really ought to know better, eat this stuff up like it was some kind of political delicacy.
Maybe the public will too. Maybe they won’t find it shocking that a government lies to them, relentlessly, every day, or that it has no interest in governing, or that its tactical calculations involve pointing a gun at its own head and repeatedly pulling the trigger. Maybe we really are that much of a basement-level country that we find this kind of thing endearing.
Or maybe, behind the frenzy of activity and the daily jabber of nonsense, there is a clear sense of insecurity. They’re terrified of being found out. People don’t like being taken for fools. Anyone with a lingering faith in this country’s better nature should point out that this is precisely what’s happening.
Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk. His new book, How To Be A Liberal, is out in spring 2020.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk’s Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.