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15 February 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

On both the left and the right, I’ve never despaired more at British politicians

They lie because they are frightened: of the press, of their own party members, of killing their own ambitions, of a rising tide of thoughtless populism.

By Helen Lewis

Distance gives perspective. I’ve spent the last week in Nepal, hearing about problems which are so much bigger than my own that it’s embarrassing: what do you say to someone worried that their house will be trampled by elephants again? And then every evening I would come back to my hotel, connect to the wifi and inhale Britain’s news. Except… there wasn’t any.

Brexit has broken the news cycle. In the course of a whole week, while parliament was in session, I can’t think of a single serious political development that I was desperate to understand better, or engage with more deeply. (Admittedly, I was shocked that the Telegraph took a sharp right-turn into George Soros conspiracy theories, but – I hope – that was a lapse of judgement rather than a calculated new policy.) British politics reminds me of a Land Rover stuck in a field: the wheels are spinning, mud is flying everywhere, but there seems to be no possibility of moving forward.

Like everyone else, I wish that any solutions didn’t have to start from here. That kind of thinking can drive you mad, though. On Twitter, someone suggested that Theresa May should have gone into her snap election promising to leave the single market (and therefore “take back control” of immigration) and stay in the customs union (thereby solving the Irish border question and softening the impact on the economy). Looked at that way, last summer’s campaign seems like even more of a wasted opportunity. Back when May was still the Iron Lady Mark 2, she could have faced down the hard Brexiteers – surely even Jacob Rees-Mogg wouldn’t threaten a leadership contest at the start of a short campaign? – and put her vision to the country. Then, as the leader of the largest party, she could have answered every self-indulgent hiccough about the referendum expressing the “will of the people” by pointing out that those same people had updated, or at least clarified, their will in the intervening months.

Of course, Theresa May didn’t do that. She somehow manages to be both reckless and cautious – which is almost impressive until you remember that she can’t even get two dozen of her own party, sitting at the same cabinet table, to agree what the Brexit end-state should be. Instead, the Tory party indulges itself in therapeutic infighting and preparations for the next leadership race. It has learned absolutely nothing from the referendum campaign, which was seen through the psychodrama of Dave vs Boris, a rivalry dating back to their school days. (I suppose it’s part of a grand British tradition that the EU referendum was lost on the playing fields of Eton.)

Not that Labour is any more inspirational. Its tactic seems to be, to borrow a phrase from Johnson, to wait for “the ball to come loose from the back of the scrum”. In other words: hang on for a Corbyn government. But that isn’t good enough. There might be four years of this parliament left to run, and all the indications are that the economy will get worse, wages will stay stagnant, homelessness will continue to rise, prisons will remain dangerously overcrowded, the transport network will continue to crumble, the NHS will gasp desperately for more money and we still won’t build enough bloody houses. This is no time to tend to the allotment and wait for your turn to come.

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In this landscape, the small pockets of industry which do exist really stand out. There’s Michael Gove, admittedly with one eye on another run at the Tory leadership (well, stranger things have happened) attacking the environment brief with zeal. And on the left, John McDonnell and his advisers are genuinely trying to think about new ways to build an economy when the traditional social democratic model of redistributing the proceeds of growth is no longer an option. Everywhere else, stasis reigns. Truly, this is the age of political cowardice dressed up as strategy.

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With noble exceptions such as Anna Soubry, most Tory MPs are keeping quiet about the disaster they think is coming because they are afraid of their voters. The bulk of Labour’s parliamentary party is keeping quiet about still thinking Jeremy Corbyn is hopeless because they are afraid of their activists. Corbyn himself talks relentlessly about a “jobs-first Brexit” to disguise the fact he’s fine with pretty much any kind of Brexit. (He knows that, unlike him, the majority of Labour members, as well as Labour voters, are pro-European.) May pretends that Liam Fox is the best choice for the job of trade secretary, when the truth is that his globe-trotting pointlessness represents nothing more than appeasement. And if Rees-Mogg enters the next Tory leadership race as the favourite, how many of his colleagues in parliament will have the courage to say to the swooning Conservative grassroots: we’ve seen him up close and you’re making a big mistake?

I used to think that Jeremy Paxman’s interviewing credo – “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” – was needlessly unfair to politicians, most of whom work long hours, put up with a lot of grief, and are motivated by a genuine desire to serve the public. But right now they are lying, almost all of them, almost all the time. And they’re doing it because they are frightened: of the press, of their own party members, of killing their own ambitions, of a rising tide of thoughtless populism. 

I’ve been writing about politics for seven years now, and it’s double that since I first became politically active thanks to the disastrous Iraq War. In that time, I’ve never felt so depressed about my country and the quality of the people who want to lead it. Previous governments in my adult lifetime have been variously wrong, and cruel, and misguided, and deluded, and complacent. But I can’t remember a time when Britain’s problems seemed so large and the politicians confronting them felt so small.

This article appears in the 15 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist