If we the voters get the governments we deserve, as I have often read, then all I can say is that we must have behaved pretty badly to be saddled with this one.
I refer in this instance to Theresa May’s administration, although pretty much anything that I say about hers could also be said of Donald Trump’s, with bells on.
Both governments at present seem populated by fools and knaves. They operate in a strange limbo in which inaction rules because their energies are devoted to surviving whatever crisis or scandal happens to be on the agenda for that particular day. Which leaves little time for the business of governance – of promulgating bills and passing legislation, and all that boring old-fashioned stuff. May, when she is not firing or censuring ministers, is consumed by Brexit. Trump, shadowed by a special prosecutor, has yet to put a significant bill through Congress.
In both governments chaos reigns unhindered. The number of senior figures being fired or waiting to tender a resignation, or merely to be hauled over coals, conjures up an image of errant pupils lined up outside a head’s office. Meanwhile, in another part of the school, those investigators not already engaged on one scandal or another can be heard polishing their resumes and their shoes, confident that their services will soon be required.
This collective madness in our governing classes must surely be unprecedented.
Take Mrs. May’s government. Or as the late Henny Youngman would have said: “Take Mrs. May’s government – please!”
She and it are at present grappling not with one scandal but three, each unrelated to the others.
The first involves sex, or more accurately a vague intimation of sex. It involves a minister of defence who, some years ago, while seated at a dinner alongside a female reporter, touched her knee, presumably with some lascivious intent. Someone kindly suggested that he may have been fumbling for a dropped napkin. Either way, her reaction, as she recalled it, was to tell him to “fuck off”. And there the matter might have ended, except that, more recently, he told a female cabinet colleague who had complained that her hands were cold that he could recommend a place where she might warm them up. It was, needless to say, not the fireplace. Her reaction was to turn him in to the prime minister. Her response was to fire him.
More sexual scandals now appear likely, some based on a mysterious ‘dossier’ which has been circulating around Whitehall, purporting to identify a large number of senior ministers and members of parliament who have been guilty of sexual harassment, or worse. If you believe the scope of the document, parliament has been incubating an entire army of Harvey Weinstein wannabes. “No one is safe anymore,” said one MP, presumably not excluding even himself.
Meanwhile Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson provided a distraction from matters sexual – unusually for him, many noted – by telling a parliamentary committee that a British woman of Iranian origin currently serving five years in custody in Iran for ‘spying’ – she claims she was on holiday visiting her mother – was doing no such thing. She was “engaging in a bit of teaching,” he explained. The subject she was teaching, he added, fatefully, was journalism. Nothing could have been more carefully calculated to provoke the Iranian government short of admitting that she was directly employed by MI5 and licensed to kill. He later ‘clarified’ his comment in a statement to parliament, but the damage had been done. The poor woman, who the government has been negotiating to repatriate, now faces having her sentence increased.
Boris Johnson’s head will almost certainly not roll as a result of this indiscretion, which may be counted as a minor one to all but the poor woman in detention and her family. But it will hardly deflect those who all along thought Johnson unsuitable for the post of foreign secretary, or indeed any other post – not to mention those who consider him an unscrupulous schemer who should be ejected from cabinet as a traitor.
And then, as if Mrs. May had not got enough on her plate, along came Priti Patel, the Minister for International Development, with a large dollop of leaden stodge. Ms. Patel, it seems, went on holiday to Israel and while there took the opportunity to meet with various government ministers, including Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister himself. Nothing wrong with that on the face of it, one might think, except that allegedly she omitted to tell the Foreign Office or 10 Downing Street what she was up to. (That, to be fair, has since been disputed in a report in the Jewish Chronicle.) She is also said to have visited the Golan Heights, which is a no-go area and also a no-no act for any British official as Britain does not recognise Israel’s expansion into formerly Palestinian territory. As I wrote this, Ms. Patel had been recalled from an official foreign trip to face the music, presumably the percussion of a Downing Street firing squad.
All this may seem like small beer to readers across the pond. Americans like to think they do everything bigger, and better, and that includes scandals. And so they do.
Of President Donald Trump’s deficiencies, both personal and political, so much has been written that journalists are fast running out of pejoratives. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller may or may not end up ‘nailing’ Trump for colluding with Russia, but he is digging up lots of dirt and getting awfully close to the president’s inner circle of advisors. Trump, some observers predict, will have to fire him to survive. Now, that would provoke a proper scandal.
None of which has anything to do with the business of government. In what used to be the real world, Trump’s vaunted legislative agenda of abolishing Obama-care, restricting immigration (including the building of that wall) and vastly increasing spending on infrastructure, is moribund. He may get tax cuts through Congress, if only because for Republican fat-cats it is a no-brainer. But for the normal business of passing legislation that may be it for the foreseeable future, perhaps for the rest of Trump’s term – if he lasts that long.
The Democrats can crow all they want but they are not crowing loudly because they are if anything in even worse shape: leaderless, clueless and devoid of inspiration even in their rhetoric. In short, incapable of formulating or selling policies of any kind that might tempt the electorate into the belief that that the party might remotely resemble let alone actually represent an effective, coherent and humane alternative.
They rely instead on Trump continuing to make a mess of everything – especially making a fool of himself – and then suffer the consequences in next year’s mid-term elections. It almost goes without saying that nobody will be voting FOR the democrats, only AGAINST the Republicans. A victory defined in the negative will not win the Democrats a general election. Ask Hillary Clinton.
And I wouldn’t even bank on even a mid-term revolt unless in the interim Mueller finds those elusive metaphorical ‘smoking guns’ (as opposed to the real ones that are deployed with stupefying regularity against innocent civilians). Or, in a more likely scenario, those rampant bulls on Wall Street suffer a sudden panic attack.
The vibrancy of the stock market – its appreciation in percentage terms is in double figures since Trump’s election – is the one ‘achievement’ that allows this administration to blow its own horn. But I wouldn’t bank on that for much longer, either, even with a tax bill.
So back to the original question: what have we done to deserve such representatives – the narcissistic Donald Trumps at one end of the spectrum, or the absurd Priti Patels at the other? People who, regardless of their formal qualifications for the job, are so arrogant or ignorant, and possibly both, that they will always stumble into judgements that any primary schoolteacher would advise against.
Or are we just passing through an aberrant political phase, like the scandal-ridden presidencies of Warren Harding and Richard Nixon, or the accident-prone premiership of Ramsay MacDonald, one from which we will eventually emerge, all the wiser and better for it.
Or has something else happened, something so fundamental in the conduct of human affairs that it condemns both of us, Britons and Americans alike, to witness and endure a slow and inexorable decline in the competence of our political class?
If that is the case, I can’t think what it might be, other than an all-consuming indifference.
If it is indifference, then shame on us, and we are indeed doomed, as Mr. Putin, among others, is hoping.
I don’t wish to sound pessimistic, but looking ahead I’m damned if I can see any broad sunlit uplands in prospect. If I could, I would take a sporting shot at identifying the Democratic Party’s likely candidate for 2020 and the next leader of the British Conservative Party. I have tried. In each case I came up with not a single name that could not have been drawn from a hat.
No wonder Trump won and May hangs on. They could be around for years.