21 November 2019, The Tablet

The Brexit Election: Are we about to get the government we deserve?


Boris made his name as a Brussels correspondent who created the 'bent banana' school of political reporting.

The Brexit Election: Are we about to get the government we deserve?

Boris Johnson speaks to staff and students during a visit to Bolton University chancellor's building after a huge blaze damaged a block of student accommodation
Photo: Christopher Furlong/PA Wire/PA Images

A snap poll after Tuesday's television debate called it 51-49 in Boris Johnson's favour, which, rounded to the nearest whole number, equals a lacklustre 1-1 draw. Tactically, that is. Strategically, to come out more or less equal was a win for Jeremy Corbyn. A parallel with the Battle of Jutland, perhaps. Or Nietzsche’s "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Recent polls on their relative popularity show that the public doesn't particularly like either of them, but dislikes Mr Corbyn much more than it dislikes Mr Johnson. To be virtually level in unpopularity after an hour's television exposure was an achievement, if not a triumph.

That background hiss after the debate was a deep collective sigh of disappointment from the watching public, amounting to: "Is that really all either of you've got to offer?" Where was the vision, apart from a few trite phrases learnt by heart? Mr Corbyn claims to lead a party which offers a radical new deal for Britain, but there was no electricity in his delivery of it. He seemed tired and possibly even slightly bored.

The main advantage to "getting Brexit done" was that it might stop Boris repeating it ad nauseam. But then what? How does a wild promise of 40 new NHS hospitals, nobody knows where and nobody knows when, help ease the long queues and endless waiting times in your local accident and emergency department this winter? How does his promise of sunlit uplands post-Brexit, once the "potential" of "this great country of ours" has been liberated by casting off the "European yoke", square with the dire predictions of economic forecasters that the UK's GDP faces a drop of five per cent or so? Boris was excitably optimistic, but he always is. There's little depth to it.

What we have in Labour's policy programme is not so much a sinister Marxist plot to underline the established order as an attempt to import into Britain the successful German social market model, inspired by post-war Christian Democratic principles which were in turn inspired by Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum. If the architect of this is John McDonnell, shadow Chancellor and emerging strong man of the Labour Party, then he is going back to his Catholic roots in postwar Liverpool. Das Kapital it is not.

In other words we are not heading towards an East German version of the good society but a West German one. Maurice Glasman, you should be proud. Whether it will work is another matter. But Mr Corbyn does not seem to know anything about this "New" New Labour Party – more Catholic than anything Tony Blair dared to envisage – let alone believe in it. "For the many not the few" isn't quite the common good.

He doesn't even seem to be aware that both he and Mr Johnson are now signed up to a new version of Keynesian economics, which proposes that the way to lift a struggling economy is not to suck money out of it but to pump money into it. They are hoping that public investment will energise the economy so that increased tax revenues will pay for improvements to the physical and social infrastructure. "Handbag" economics – Margaret Thatcher's basic instinct that you cut your cloth according to your purse – are out. Hence both sides wish to ditch austerity. Borrow and spend, like there's no tomorrow. Deficit financing is in.

There is something peculiar about Mr Johnson's fluidity with the truth. It should be remembered that he made his name as a Brussels correspondent who created the "bent banana" school of political reporting. It stretches the truth rather than breaks it. If the European Commission was proposing new rules on the quality of fruit, so that bananas, say, imported through Marseilles, will meet certain standards when they end up for sale in Dusseldorf, then they have to say what they mean in writing. That means defining an acceptable banana. But that is also easily distorted at the mischievous hands of someone like Boris Johnson, into a mad ban on bananas that are bent too much. He knows that is not what they meant. But he doesn't care. He also knows it is difficult for them to challenge his description of it, especially when he poses as someone having a bit of fun at their expense.

So his general air of "nothing is really serious", which can seem attractively self-deprecating, means that mockery is his default position. Witty, yes. Clever, indeed. I loved his description of Jeremy Corbyn as a "cross between Lenin and Worzel Gummidge." He should be writing scripts for Fleabag. But is this a solid statesman, someone we can trust with the fate of the nation? Or just a gadfly?

Mr Corbyn is so much his opposite, humourless, slow thinking and bland of speech. He has not surrounded himself with a first class team even though they are or could be available to him – people such as Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper and indeed her husband Ed Balls – but instead leads a mediocre shadow cabinet that, so to speak, casts no shadow. The problem with a radical package is that to believe in it you have to believe in the people behind it, that they understand what they are doing and are competent enough to carry it through.

Where are the Labour giants of yesteryear? Even Gordon Brown is a towering absence, and Ed Miliband seems like a political genius in comparison. Only Sir Keir Starmer, an MP for just four years, has any of the required "bottom". The rest of the talent has all fled to the back benches or abandoned politics altogether. Much the same is true of the Tory heavyweights. Mr Johnson's cabinet is little better than Mr Corbyn's alternative.

I hope it isn't true that we about to get the government we deserve.




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