Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole recently claimed that Britain is becoming ungovernable because the last three prime ministers have had to pretend Brexit offered the UK advantages, something they all know to be patently untrue. And after Liz Truss resigned yesterday, you can be sure the same will also apply to the next – and even the one after that.
He suggests it’s impossible to sustain a government when policy making is built on a falsehood as it has been since 2016. The gaping chasm between reality and the Brexit fantasy is growing wider by the week, even Michael Gove is having doubts.
O’Toole is right, but the problem goes deeper than he thinks.
The Tories have been unable to elect a moderate, pro-European leader for some time, but after thousands of UKIP supporters – aka David Cameron’s “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” – swelled the membership in 2018, it is now impossible.
A parliamentary party is distilled from the membership. The cabinet is constitutionally a highly concentrated version. Wise people are expected to elect the wisest as leader, but in the Conservative Party this has been reversed. The cabinet is now stuffed with what others have suggested are “overconfident, impatient simpletons” – duffers driven by ideology, faith and little else.
Britain has ‘the levers’ in its hands – unfortunately
In May, Lord Frost told the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank:
“Crucially, Brexit means we have the levers in our hands. Almost uniquely among European states, we can take for ourselves the decisions we need to succeed.”
This is the problem. Former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng showed why when he unveiled his mini-budget on 23 September.
In the space of a week, sterling sank, UK government borrowing costs soared, pension funds teetered on the brink of insolvency and millions of mortgage-holders now face a massive hike in monthly payments. The Bank of England is still trying to rescue the chancellor from his ineptitude.
Welcome to post-Brexit Britain.
The only thing ‘unique’ about us is our inability to elect anything resembling a competent government. Brexit started the rot. We may have finally reached a nadir under Truss – but don’t get complacent.
Ungovernable: how did we get here?
To be frank, the quality of our politicians has been falling for years and the Conservatives have always had their share of oddballs. A delegate at the party conference recently said, “the main problem for any political party is its membership. The membership are largely mad”.
As an example, an association in Barton-on-Sea in Hampshire, has been putting Desmond Swayne forward for every election since 1997.
Until 2016, Tory leaders kept any fanatics who passed the selection process nailed up in the political attic. Brexit changed that. When Boris Johnson replaced Theresa May, especially during the 2019 election, anyone seen as dangerously moderate was forced out.
The only qualification to serving in cabinet now is having an unshakeable belief in a policy that is impoverishing Britain, and an IQ lower than the PM; two things that are clearly connected. In the past this would have prevented Johnson or Truss forming a government at all, but with the 2019 intake of Tory inadequates, the party is spoilt for choice.
No need for experts
Worse, MPs like Kwarteng have started to think that being elected magically confers expertise, allowing respected institutions to be routinely sidelined and experts sacked.
This is something quite new and wouldn’t have happened without Brexit. Gove’s 2016 book-burning exhortations that experts, particularly from bodies like the Office for Budgetary Responsibility or the Institute for Fiscal Studies, were not to be trusted, has now been extended to include the entire Treasury.
Of even greater concern is the sheer gullibility of a significant part of the British electorate, as the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election showed. The former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall asked recently, with reference to British democracy: who voted for this? The terrible truth is, we did.
Nobody is accusing Truss of having staged a coup; she became PM under the rules.
It is not yet out of the question that Johnson, a habitual liar, known philanderer, and still under investigation by parliament’s standards and privileges committee, could return from his Caribbean holiday for a second spell in No 10, like the King from over the water. How is that even thinkable?
How do we solve it?
If parties and voters can’t be trusted to choose sensible MPs, we need a more robust system to handle the outcome of elections.
Our first past the post voting system amplifies the power of political parties and the influence of small factions like the European Research Group. Indeed, such groups are incentivised to infiltrate larger parties. It’s the only route to having any legislative presence.
A proportional representation (PR) system would solve the problem overnight. Parliament would better reflect the balance of political thinking. Parties would be forced into more transparent grown-up coalitions, moderating the influence of radical extremists and avoiding wild policy swings. Truss would not have been able to ditch the Conservative Party’s whole manifesto unchallenged under PR, for instance.
Britain would become governable again.
To download a pdf copy of this article, visit this link. And to sign up for our exclusive gazette, see below.