The floundering attorney general shows just how shallow the political talent pool is, writes ALASTAIR CAMPBELL.
Have you noticed how many European politicians and journalists speak flawless English? Have those of you who travel in continental Europe, and perhaps speak or understand some of their languages, noticed how different the coverage of Brexit is there, to the debate in the UK? Less of it, but more rounded, less clichéd. Less staring down the wrong end of a very narrow telescope.
These two points are not unrelated. Both reveal a British myopia which has played its own part in our politicians and media taking us – the country and the debate – to the awful place in which we find ourselves.
Our lack of interest in the languages of others has fed both the sense of our own ‘we won the war’ superiority – ‘everyone else speaks English so what is the point?’ – and our lack of understanding of how others are seeing the same issues.
Our lack of interest in detail, compared with our EU friends, and most of the media’s elevation of biased viewpoint over empirical fact, has helped myth and fantasy play such leading roles on the Brexit journey.
Geoffrey Cox and his codpiece are among the more colourful consequences. To the myopic British, be they MPs or media, the attorney general is a character, an interesting addition to the ‘politics as showbiz for ugly people’ Brexit cast list, a Rumpolean lawyer with a booming voice and a loud coat who raised a few laughs when he was the warm-up man for Theresa May before her last (and possibly final) party conference speech as leader.
To those who have had the misfortune to meet him across the negotiating table in Brussels he is a blustering buffoon with a poor understanding of the issues and the way the EU works.
He leaves the negotiation room to tell No.10 that he made good progress, ‘news’ excitedly passed on to the dog-nodding elements of the UK media. His EU counterparts leave the same room wondering what the new plans were that they were meant to be negotiating.
For every British briefing – that we were now into the ‘meat’ of the issue… there was now real give and take .. everyone was ready to work weekends and through the night to get the final details done… this is how it always goes in Europe, right down to the wire… – anyone checking with the other side was met with absolute bafflement.
There were no new plans. There was no new negotiation. There were no alternative arrangements. There were just lots of jokes about Cox, including the suggestion that there should be a protest under the slogan ‘Cox out!’ Childish willy-waving banter. It is what happens when serious people become confused and desperate, realising that the leadership of a country choosing its own decline is not very serious at all.
Try for a moment to see things from their perspective. The UK chose to leave. The new prime minister chose to lay down ‘red lines’ on the single market, the customs union and the European Court of Justice. She chose to trigger Article 50 with its two year deadline without first agreeing either a clear negotiating strategy or an agreed (even among her cabinet) endpoint.
She chose to call an election which led to her losing her parliamentary majority. She chose to appoint a succession of ministers to key positions whose strategy appeared to consist of mocking and abusing the Europeans while telling the Brits everything was going well and we could after all have our cake and eat it.
The EU side, for all the provocation, and the myopic media portrayal of them as being difficult and intransigent and, frankly, (whisper it, but this is the real complaint) not very British, has remained incredibly calm and reasonable in the circumstances.
Years ago, literally years now, they set out their initial priorities for the negotiations – the ‘divorce bill’, the rights of EU citizens here and UK citizens there, and the Irish border.
These were agreed to as priorities. Combined with the red lines set out above, the fabled backstop thus came into being. A UK government creation. To resolve a UK government problem. At the heart of – remember – ‘the only possible deal’ (T May).
So then came the first so-called meaningful vote. Preceded by days and days of the airwaves filled with ministers to tell us that everything was ‘clear’ – God how that word has been devalued by May and Brexit – and that this was the only deal on the table and that unless they voted for it, MPs were putting democracy itself at risk.
And what happened? The Withdrawal Agreement and political declaration, which she had negotiated, complete with backstop to meet her demands, were defeated. Overwhelmingly. By the biggest margin in history. Her authority, drained already, was shattered.
Yet still the Europeans tried to help her. So what did she do? She ordered her MPs to vote against her own deal so that she could send a message to Europe’s leaders that her MPs don’t like it – er, they knew that already – and sent in Cox to bat.
Try to imagine the outcry there would have been among our more myopic MPs and nationalistic media had May reluctantly agreed to something that the other EU leaders had demanded to help them deal with a political problem they faced; and then, when it was clear the fix they had asked for was not going down well with their own side, but making their problem worse, they turned to her and said ‘you caused this mess! What are you going to do to get us out of it?’ There would not be a Second World War reference undisturbed in the rush to show that we were the good guys, they were the bad guys and all hell was being unleashed by their unreasonableness.
The deal that was put to the Commons this week was in all significant aspects identical to the one that was defeated in January. All that time. All that brainpower (sic). All to confirm that she has had one strategy and one strategy alone – to run down the clock and hope that the fear of no deal will make MPs panic and vote for her deal.
It is partly because the reserves in her authority bank are so low that MPs chose yet again to dismiss the ‘my deal or no-deal’ ultimatum for what it is – a false choice.
Political authority can come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes. Of course it comes in votes. The bigger the majority the greater the authority. But it can come too in personality, in raw power, in charisma, in cleverness, in empathy, and as you run through these kind of indiscernible power qualities you realise just how few the prime minister has.
Yet she continues to conduct herself as though her fellow leaders, ministers and MPs view her as some kind of modern day Thatcher. Her ministers continue to speak as though they too are listened to with respect and reverence.
This is perhaps the most useless collection of individuals that has ever gathered around a cabinet table. Chris Grayling is but the most mocked of an entire comic cast: Gavin Williamson, who goes through the newspapers each morning for a new domestic drama into which to insert the over-stretched armed forces; Jeremy Hunt who doesn’t know his Slovakia from his Slovenia; Sajid Javid who uniquely managed to make millions sympathise with an extremist; Damian Hinds, who seems like a nice enough chap when he comes on the telly – I just wish every now and then it was to talk about schools; Liam ‘air miles’ Fox; Amber ‘coloured’ Rudd; Karen ‘that’s not my view’ Bradley; Andrea ‘take your Islamaphobia concerns to the Foreign Office’ Leadsom; Matt ‘always buffering’ Hancock; Michael Gove, a man so devious he will one day be discovered lost up his own backside.
Of course they have to pretend they support the PM and her deal. But it is a sign of just how far removed they are from the public assessment of their own abilities, and the esteem in which they are held, that when they go out and say there are three simple steps to stopping Brexit – vote down the deal, vote down no-deal and hold a second referendum – they think it helps their cause.
Far from it. It cheers us up mightily that we have secured steps one and two; and that the reason they are so scared of step three is that they fear – rightly – they would lose it.
Will of the people. Will of the people. Will of the people. See you on the Put it to the People march. March 23. Noon. Hyde Park. Be there and let’s make history. Let’s get it written in every language in the world. Good history, not the shitshow this rabble are currently writing.