ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Pygmy politicians play into hands of People’s Vote
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The New European's Editor-at-Large explores the British public's disillusionment with its political leaders.
So I'm at The Belfry, not playing golf, but speaking to a construction industry conference. Speaking twice as it happens; during the day about mental health – the construction sector has a real issue with suicide; and in the evening an after-dinner slot with the brief to talk about whatever I want… so, after a few funny stories, onto the unfunniest story of our time – Brexit.
I ask for a show of hands among the 250 people present: who is optimistic about the way Brexit is going? Five hands go up. That's two per cent. Next question, who thinks Theresa May is doing a good job as prime minister? Though both my instincts and the law of averages tell me quite a few voted Tory at the last election, not one single hand is raised. That's zero per cent. Then, I ask them if they think Jeremy Corbyn would do any better. One hand goes up; and later the man who raised it tells me he did so as a joke, to annoy Tories at his table.
It is not the first time that I have encountered such overwhelming negativity about our political leaders and the way the government is tackling the single biggest issue facing the country. It reveals something of a crisis in our politics. And it goes a lot deeper than just the leaders.
Which members of the shadow cabinet can you name? What Labour policies across the main areas of national life can you recall? To ask those questions – and to have a reasonable assumption that on both, I am unlikely to be flooded with answers – is not Corbyn-bashing, any more than it was Corbyn-bashing to ask my Belfry audience if they thought he would be a good PM. It is simply to state that Labour still has a big job to do to persuade the country that it is a government in waiting.
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The government being the government, people ought to be able to name more ministers than shadow ministers, and recall more specific policies. But, if I had asked more hand-show questions, I doubt there would have been many getting raised for 'good job', and there remain quite a few cabinet ministers who could walk down the street without anyone having the faintest idea who they are. David Gauke anyone? David Mundell? Alun Cairns? James Brokenshire? Damian Hinds? (He's in charge of schools).
Karen Bradley would perhaps be among the least recognised. Yet she has one of the most difficult and most important jobs, namely secretary of state for Northern Ireland, which recently broke Belgium's record of 541 days to become the country without a government for the longest period in peacetime, underlining the importance of her role.
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She has surely been in the job long enough – nine months – to know that a little historical knowledge and political nous are minimum requirements. Both appeared to go walkabout when she said: 'I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn't understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland. I didn't understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don't vote for unionist parties and vice versa. So, the parties fight for election within their own community.
'Actually, the unionist parties fight the elections against each other in unionist communities and nationalists in nationalist communities.' Actually… wow!
Of course, when prime ministers make changes, new ministers cannot be expected to know everything from day one. But this seems so basic. It also begs the question as to whether when appointing her, Theresa May made any enquiries as to her interest, knowledge and capacity for complexity, because without capacity for complexity, you very quickly get lost in Northern Ireland's politics.
Even if Bradley didn't know much about Northern Irish politics, May knew enough about Brexit to understand that the border issue alone was sufficient to make sure she put in a safe pair of hands with the deft political skills required to bring solutions to problems.
I once sat next to Bradley at the Paralympics in 2012, when the joyous Olympic spirit in the land was the exact opposite of the grisly, grimy Brexit spirit of today. She was with her family, I with mine, and she was very nice to talk to, and clearly a big sports fan. Handy for the secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport. But even if she didn't know much about Northern Ireland when she was shuffled, is it too much to think she might have learned that saying so in the terms she did would do little to aid the authority she needs when her role is to try to get those political institutions up and running again?
It says something about how poor the current political crop is that Boris Johnson is seen almost universally in political and diplomatic circles as the worst foreign secretary in living memory, and yet is favourite to succeed May.
Similarly it was going to be hard to replace David Davis as Brexit secretary with anyone with quite the same capacity to avoid detail in favour of breezy and unjustified confidence about how well things are going, but Dominic Raab is giving it a good go. Liam Fox, he who promised 'the easiest trade deals in history' and who has since circumnavigated the globe several times while failing to strike them, is another for whom reality and rhetoric live in entirely separate universes. At least Chris Grayling occasionally acknowledges that transport is going to s**t on his watch.
I haven't even mentioned Michael Gove, who does have a brain, but tends to do terrible things with it; or Esther McVey, still in post despite an apparent breach of the ministerial code when misleading MPs over universal credit; or – whisper this one if you are near anyone in the armed forces – Gavin Williamson. Oh my God, how is that child in charge of our defences?
At a time of giant political challenges, we have pygmy politicians, and that is a real problem, without an easy short-term solution.
The good news is that it is one of the factors generating momentum for the People's Vote campaign. The words of a non-pygmy, president Charles de Gaulle, come to mind – 'I have come to the conclusion that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.'
Over the summer, there has been a whole raft of polls showing growing support for a referendum on the final Brexit deal, and one of the most interesting findings was this: If you give people three options – Remain, Leave with a deal, or Leave with no deal, the figures are 52, 15 and 33. So May's proposed option is dead not just with MPs and the EU, but with the public too. If you remove her option and offer the binary choice of Remain v no-deal, Remain wins by 56 to 44. A 12-point lead is what we call a landslide.
A people that does not trust its politicians is demanding to take back control of the process, and developing a much clearer sense of the best outcome for the country. May has emphatically ruled out another referendum; like she ruled out a snap election, the one she then had, which eroded her authority and lost her mandate for a hard Brexit. The more she says a referendum on the final deal won't happen, the more people think that it should, and so the more that it will.
Happy days. We're winning. And the losers who make up the cabinet are helping.
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