Melanie Phillips, Michael Portillo and me

Mel P was sensible on Moral Maze, but Michael P behaved ridiculously.

I turned up on Radio 4's Moral Maze last night. The other "witnesses" were the former Sun political editor George Pascoe-Watson, the Tory blogger Iain Dale and the philosophy writer Mark Vernon.

On Michael Buerk's panel were the ultra-conservative columnist Melanie Phillips, the former Tory cabinet minister Michael Portillo, the conservative Catholic commentator Clifford Longley and the liberal contrarian Kenan Malik. So much, as I've often said, for the Beeb's so-called left-wing bias.

You can listen to the show here.

The subject of the programme, in the wake of the Gordon Brown/Piers Morgan interview and, of course, the recent row over "bullying" inside No 10, was "personality politics" -- do we have too much of it? Has it become a crude substitute for ideological debate and discussion?

I happen to think it has. Political coverage has been reduced to which leader has the nicest smile, whose wife wears the best clothes, and who can emote best in reality-TV-style interviews with the likes of Piers Morgan and Alan Titchmarsh. Voters are told to vote for the guy they "like" or identify with, rather than the guy who can best run the economy and best govern the country.

Here is the peerless Roy Hattersley, writing in this week's New Statesman:

Policies have become less important than personalities. Image has taken the place of ideas. Rawnsley is a paradigm figure from the age in which parliamentary reporting has been replaced by "sketch-writing" -- an attempt to amuse rather than to inform. The End of the Party debases politics not because it diminishes the Prime Minister, but because it reduces what should be a debate about great issues into a gossip column.

. . . It may be naive to believe that, in the age of reality television, politics should still provide something more noble than the parliamentary equivalent of mud-wrestling. But unless politicians return to the conflict of ideas, democracy itself will be devalued, and the Andrew Rawnsleys of this world will make their money by suggesting that elections should be decided by which party leader the voters would most like to see evicted from a Westminster edition of I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!.

Hear, hear!

The problem on the Moral Maze last night, however, was a lack of definition. Neither the panellists nor the witnesses seemed to be able to agree how to define "personality" or "personality politics". I happened to agree with Melanie Phillips -- for the first time in my life! -- when she said, right at the outset:

There is a difference between personality and character . . . but the exploitation of sentiment and emotion by politicians is something that has gone too far.

She's absolutely, 100 per cent, correct. (Whoaaaah! There's a sentence I never thought I'd write: "Melanie Phillips is right." I think I can't breathe . . . )

But Michael Portillo wasn't happy with my argument. He went on and on about Iraq and how Tony Blair's personality had mattered in the run-up to the decision to invade Iraq, not policy issues. The lesson of the Iraq war, he argued, was that it was important to "understand the character of Tony Blair".

Really? Portillo, of course, supported the disastrous and illegal invasion in 2003 and (wrongly) predicted that all would be fine in postwar Iraq. So perhaps, on the contrary, he should have studied the issues (WMDs, UN resolutions, postwar reconstruction, etc) more, focused on the policy more, and not simply been seduced by Blair's irrelevant "character", charm, personality, brilliant rhetoric, and so on.

From the start of our exchange, Portillo seemed riled, and then became very aggressive and started sneering at me. For example:

Let me just comment that many people listening to this programme will think that you pick and choose according to your own personal preferences . . . You're just somebody who's got a series of prejudices and tries to stand it up with something you claim is kind of evidence . . . Perhaps that's because you're not very good at examining your own personality.

Oooohhh! Sticks and stones, Michael. I had to point out to the former defence secretary that perhaps I hadn't had the opportunity of examining my own personality in as many TV documentaries as he had.

Portillo strikes me as the classic "modern" Cameroonian Conservative: socially liberal, pro-war and Thatcherite on the economy. Here he is in the Sunday Times, in August 2009, quoting Charles Murray (!), railing against a "culture of entitlement" and accusing the welfare state of "boosting idleness". "New" Tories, eh?

During our exchange, Portillo refused to see the distinction between one's personality and one's background. This internet dictionary, for instance, defines personality as the "distinctive qualities of a person, especially those distinguishing personal characteristics that make one socially appealing". So why should my admission to being interested in David Cameron's schooling undermine my opposition to personality politics and my dislike for the trivialisation of debate by political journalists obsessed with whether or not Gordon Brown throws mobile phones, or the number of women Nick Clegg has bedded?

In fact, I don't need to know whether Brown has a bad temper or not, but I think I do have a right to know where Cameron went to school. That's because he has surrounded himself with other Old Etonians while pretending that "we're all in this together", and is advocating economic and social policies -- such as the inheritance-tax cut -- that would enrich Old Etonians, toffs, bankers and multimillionaires at the expense of ordinary people and, in particular, public-sector workers.

As Polly Toynbee pointed out in the Guardian in December:

If politicians often come from private schools and well-heeled families, sadly that's not surprising. The 7 per cent of people emerging from private schools dominate disproportionately in top universities, the Bar, medicine, the City, journalism and any well-paid profession. But politics is not like other professions. Background becomes significant if people go into parliament and devote their lives to preserving the privileges of people like themselves. Osborne and Harriet Harman were both St Paul's pupils. The big difference is that she has spent her career trying to promote fairer life chances for those without her privileges, while Osborne and his fellow frontbench Etonians seem bent on defending theirs.

I tried to make a similar argument on the Moral Maze but Portillo wouldn't have any of it. He kept bellowing:

You think it's an important point.

Not just me, Mikey. In 2006, for example, even the Tory-supporting Sunday Times commented that "David Cameron has more Etonians around him than any leader since Macmillan" and asked whether he could "represent Britain from such a narrow base". Perhaps Portillo should read his own newspaper before getting worked up on the radio . . .

Overall, I have to say that the former defence secretary is a man who seems rather bitter about having failed to get the top job in the Tory party. He "joked" at the start of the show that his own personal issues had been an obstacle to his ambitions:

It hindered me, which is why I am now sitting around this table, of course, rather than being gainfully employed in government.

Towards the end, he remarked:

I happen to have been at a disadvantage in politics, not having had children . . .

Bitter, Michael, bitter . . .

On a side note, I'll probably get pilloried for saying this (hey, when has that stopped me before?), but I couldn't help but be annoyed at how I got such a rough ride from Portillo, including personal attacks on my own "personality", while the Tory witnesses (Dale and Pascoe-Watson) had such an easy time. You might think the former political editor of the Sun might have some tough questions to answer about the manner in which that newspaper has so debased, devalued, trivialised and undermined British politics in recent years (Monday's headline: "The Prime Monster"). Not on the "left-wing" BBC.

By the way, the most bizarre, ridiculous and conservative line of the night came not from Portillo or Phillips, nor from the host, Michael Buerk, but from the panellist Clifford Longley, the Catholic commentator and leader writer for the Tablet, on the subject of whether or not Cameron's Etonian background was of relevance to the politics of personality:

What do you make of it, though? Eton would claim to be a place where moral character is imparted. You might therefore put it to his credit that he's been in a place where character is taken very seriously and regarded very highly.

Damn those BBC pinko lefties and their hatred of public schools, eh? Long live Eton College!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.