It’s interesting to hear from the ex-head of the UK intelligence service, MI6, that Britain is going through a “political nervous breakdown“. People might be forgiven for thinking “me too” over this national psychiatric diagnosis, such has been the ongoing paralysis in government and Parliament as a result of the Brexit impasse. He went on to criticise the quality of political leadership by the leaders of the main political parties and point to how the country has been left bitterly divided, the damage the crisis is doing to Britain’s global reputation and the risk being taken with the British economy. Senior government officials get to observe political leaders at close quarters and Sawyers is not alone among past senior officials in questioning the quality of judgement being shown and having anxiety about the direction in which the country is being taken.
What was particularly striking was the comment from a former top official that “we have potential prime ministers being elected by the Conservative party now, [and] in the shape of the leader of the opposition, who do not have the standing that we have become used to in our top leadership“. One might add that recently a number of senior politicians in government have been demonstrating poor judgement.
Cameron’s error of judgement
Although Brexiters would support it, many say that the most catastophic decision was that of Cameron be so afraid of his right wing as to hold a referendum in 2016 on Brexit to appease them, before any detailed policy had been worked on as to what form Brexit should take, how it would be implemented and what were the expected outcomes and benefits. Nor had any proposition been negotiated with the EU and any agreement reached as to how Britain would exit the EU. There had instead been a few areas discussed and agreed upon, with no reference to departure. Thus the referendum was not on a detailed policy proposition but a vague, general leave or remain question. The consequences have plagued the UK ever since.
The referendum result has been treated by the victors as a blank cheque consent by the British people to whatever is being put forward. We are now on version two, a No Deal Brexit, the negotiated Wthdrawal Agreement (WA) having been rejected by Parliament. Opponents say that this is not what was voted for in 2016 and yet the Brexiters continue to claim a mandate. This is despite May’s almost equally catastrophic error in calling a general election and, by losing her majority, being unable to implement her Brexit policy. Despite the election producing no clear winner for Brexit, the Brexiters continue to claim a mandate.
Like Cameron, May struggled to retain control of her party when faced by a ruthlessly determined hard right, the misleadingly-named European Research Group (ERG) led by Rees-Mogg. Not only was her judgement questionable over the general election decision. She also arguably made the decision to trigger the 2-year leaving process without having first negotiated a deal with the EU. This handed the negotiating advantage to the EU on a plate since as time went by, and closer to the deadline, it would be the already-stronger partner who could dictate terms.
She showed poor communication and consensus-building skills, not helped by a tendency to procrastinate and to keep matters within a tight circle of advisors. A government without a majority after 2017, and dependent on a “confidence and supply” agreement with the protestant sectarian Northern Irish DUP with a reputation for rigid stubborness in pursuit of preserving the protestant ascendancy in Northern Ireland way past its sell-by date, would need to reach out across Parliament and try to develop policy that could command more than simple partisan support. This she did not do, until after her WA was defeated, far too late. Yet the logic of Brexitism and the balance of influence in the party drove her into repeated surrenders to the ERG, and again she did not try to call their bluff and face them down until far too late.
In the end, the WA was defeated by an unholy alliance of Brexiters and Remainers and May finally ran out of mileage with her own party who are in effect in the process of replacing her with, it seems, Boris Johnson as the heir-apparent.
Johnson’s leadership potential
We are now being presented with a largely unknown quantity in Mr Johnson. His ministerial competence is, if not largely unproven, at least in serious doubt. Someone who as foreign secretary in effect suggested to Iran that the British prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was actually a spy did little to advance the cause of those trying to get her released. Someone who on a visit to a Buddhist temple in Myanmar intoned lines from the doyen of British imperialist writers, Rudyard Kipling, “The Road to Mandalay“, and was on video rebuked as “inappropriate” by the British Ambassador. His previous claim to fame is as London mayor, a job with little real power and more a figuerhead, and he is remembered more for failed and ill-advised projects such as a “garden bridge” over the River Thames, eventually abandoned, mercifully before being built, at considerable cost.
Johnson is a classic narcissist, perhaps in the Trump model, presenting a false persona to the world, purely self-interested and self-seeking. This is well-known. We are told that at the start of the 2016 campaining, he wrote two speeches, one announcing his support for Remain and the other for Leave, and after some procrastination, typical of him, he plumped for Remain as most likely to advance his cause. He is accused frequently of lying, and often makes assertions that do not fit with the facts, a classic Trump tactic. His most well-known ploy was to allege that there would be a £350m a week bonus to the NHS from Brexit, one that apparently helped swing the vore in 2016, which was based on a complete distortion of the facts and grossly exaggerated.
As a campaigner for the Tory party leadership, he has made a series of promises that are potentially undeliverable, such as promising to deliver Brexit “do or die” by the end of October, if necessary by a No Deal Brexit, despite Parliament being against this strategy, unfunded tax cuts to the rich and infrastructure spending in the “left behind” regions of the UK. Again such wild promising, with little evidence of deliverability, is reminscent of Trump.
He is erratic and unpredictable, tending to play to his audience, and presents as bumbling and joking. People often like him – he is very popular with the Tory membership and hence his likely success in the leadership contest – but those who know him dislike him. His former boss at “The Daily Telegraph” has stated that Johnson is totally unsuited to be Prime Minister.
Many then ask, why Johnson? One answer is perhaps that he has played a very clever game and being superbly placed to take advantage of the leadership mess at the height of the Brexit crisis. Two that he is liked by the party membership who do not see what others see. Another is that the Tory party face an existential crisis. Brexit could destroy them. They are very likely to have an election forced on them, and the new Brexit Party led by the populist Farage could play havoc with their vote, and thus they need a vote-winner. Johnson could be their man, however poor he might then lead them and however much he might be no more able to manage the Tories than May. Win an election, however, and things could be very different. Such is politics.
Sawyers also refers to the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, in his critique of leadership. There is a lot that could be said, both critical and in praise of Corbyn. After all he probably did well in the circumstances of the 2017 general election and while not winning produced a creditable campaign performance. However, whatever else might be said about his policies and their desirability in response to the continuing crisis of austerity, spreading poverty and rampant inequality, he is now presiding increasingly unsuccessfully over a party bitterly divided over Brexit.
His pattern has been, like May, to procrastinate and “sit on the fence”, neither opposing Brexit not effectively defending it. As a lifelong Eurosceptic, he obviously struggles over commiting to a second referendum, and talks unconvincingly of a workers’ Brexit to be negotiated with the EU when the latter have repeatedly refused further negotiation beyond the WA. His party are largely pro-Remain and demand that he commits to a 2nd vote and yet the close-knit Hard Left group around him led by Milne and McCluskey continue to rebut attempts to shift them to Remain. It is a long-standing accusation that, by this “soft” brexit stance and a refusal to commit to Remain for fear of losing “working class” Leave voters, he has in effect been “the midwife of Brexit”, and voters are already abandoning Labour for the LDP. He has also been a weak leader in Parliament, has not carried conviction as a strong, determined figurehead for the party, and has continued to have very, very poor ratings in opinion polls.
Thus, arguably, a poor leader of the opposition has contributed to the crisis that Britain has faced.
Leadership is politics is crucial. Not for nothing do business management courses include components that study political leaders, since such people are in the public eye a lot and everybody forms an impression in consequence. We have now superb, if highly regretable, example case studies in how not to exercise leadership. Sadly, Britain has been faced with the some of the very worst role-models in her hour of need, and might be foregiven for the sense of nervous breakdown due to a disastrous failure of leadership.
To read more about the making of Johnson, here is some interesting detail on his journalist days and how he exaggerated, distorted and lied, and perfected the art of “Brussels-bashing”. Click here.