There was much discussion, in the wake of Donald Trump’s shock election win a year ago this week, of the risk of normalisation: a fear that America would become so inured to extreme opinions or encroachments on democratic norms, that a climate of authoritarian nationalism could gradually take hold – and that everyone would simply accept it, like the boiling of the proverbial frog.
There have been times, on reading some of the more excitable front pages in the pro-Brexit press, that I’ve worried about a similar escalation here – but now I think I was worrying about the wrong thing. It’s not authoritarian nationalism that the May government has successfully normalised. It’s total fucking incompetence.
Let’s remind ourselves of the catalogue of chaos. Yesterday, the International Development Secretary Priti Patel was forced to apologise after it emerged that, on a family holiday to Israel, she had met with Benjamin Netanyahu and promised UK aid to the Israeli army, without bothering to mention this to the rest of the cabinet. Let those of us who haven’t accidentally changed UK foreign policy after a few beers on a beach holiday cast the first stone.
I don’t want to dwell on the Patel story, because we’ve got a lot to get through here, but the press release in which she admitted all this is such a work of art that I don’t feel I can entirely skip it. Look at this bit:
On Friday 3rd November, the Secretary of State was quoted in the Guardian newspaper as follows:
“Boris knew about the visit. The point is that the Foreign Office did know about this, Boris knew about [the trip].”
This quote may have given the impression that the Secretary of State had informed the Foreign Secretary about the visit in advance. The Secretary of State would like to take this opportunity to clarify that this was not the case.
Isn’t that the most fantastic euphemism you have ever seen? My claim that I did not eat that chocolate you keep in your drawer may have given the impression that I did not eat that chocolate you keep in your drawer. I would like to take this opportunity to clarify…
To have one cabinet minister sparking diplomatic incidents may be regarded as a misfortune; to have two begins to look like carelessness. Yet even as Patel was celebrating the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in her own unique way, Boris Johnson was at work elsewhere in the region. His error was to tell a select committee that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British charity worker who’d been arrested and imprisoned while on holiday in Iran, was “simply teaching people journalism”.
This was, on the scale of Johnsonian screw ups, actually quite minor: anyone can misspeak. But the Iranian authorities read “teaching journalism” as “spreading propaganda” and promptly threatened to double her sentence to ten years At the point that Britain’s chief diplomat is getting British citizens locked up through sheer incompetence, you’d think an apology might be in order, wouldn’t you?
Yet Boris is Boris, as they say, which as it turns out means incapable of recognising that other human beings are at least as real as his own ambition. As a classicist at Oxford, he must have read Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, and sat there baffled that it took Agamemnon so long to ritually murder his daughter. At any rate, he has refused to apologise, and the Foreign Office is now briefing that he never said what he definitely said.
These two incidents have something in common (something beyond raising the risk of war in the Middle East through ministerial uselessness, I mean): in normal times, they’d have been resignation offences.
But these are not normal times, and the politics of both Brexit and Conservative minority government have made it completely impossible for the Prime Minister to discipline anyone for fear of pulling the house down around her. So instead we get the ludicrous spectacle of Liam Fox, a man once sacked from the cabinet for endangering British lives himself, going on the radio to say that whole thing really isn’t that big a deal. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?
It’s easy to forget in the midst of all this that Damian Green, the First Secretary of State and effectively the deputy prime minister, is under investigation for the alleged presence of “extreme porn” on his work computer (Green denies this). The porn is, we are told, not illegal, though this is one of these clarifications where the fact that you have to make it at all isn’t a great sign. It’s easy to forget too, that it’s less than a week since defence secretary Michael Fallon was forced to resign from the cabinet over sexual harassment allegations.
But at least Fallon did resign. Has there ever been a cabinet more full of people who, quite obviously, shouldn’t be there? Not for ideological reasons, not because we disagree with them, simply because they have broken the rules.
And yet they don’t go. Because Theresa May apparently has as much authority and honour as her Foreign Secretary. And because incompetence, it turns out, is like authoritarianism. The more of it there is, the less shocking it becomes – until one day, we just accept it all as normal.