Theresa May’s ministers rejoice in displaying their ignorance

In the era of Brexit, the UK is becoming a mediocracy ruled by the mediocre.

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For Dominic Raab, Brexit has been an education. “I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this but if you look at the UK and look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing,” the Brexit Secretary confessed at a tech industry event on Wednesday night.

Raab, an aspirant Conservative leader, has been duly ridiculed. Might it have been wise to grasp the “full extent” of UK-EU trade relations before the Brexit negotiations began? Or, indeed, before the EU referendum itself?

But Raab can console himself that he is far from alone. In September, Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, confessed that she “didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa. So, the parties fight for election within their own community.”

Ignorance of Northern Irish politics is hardly unique to Bradley. But her inability to grasp this fact even after the Conservatives signed a pact with the Democrat Unionist Party was still a rare feat (as was her decision to then reveal as much).

Then there was Jeremy Wright, the culture, media and sport secretary, who confessed on Monday that he subscribed to no British newspapers or magazines and was unable to name a sole female columnist (until, at the fifth time of asking, revealing that he enjoyed reading the Telegraph’s Allison Pearson).

But Brexit is still the field where Conservatives have most willfully displayed their ignorance. On 11 July 2016, David Davis, Raab’s predecessor as Brexit Secretary, wrote that within two years the UK could “negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU”. But this, Davis appeared not to know, is impossible while remaining within the customs union (two years later, Britain has negotiated no new agreements).

Heedless of this, Davis later asked in December 2017: “What's the requirement of my job? I don't have to be very clever, I don't have to know that much, I do just have to be calm.” Seven months later, having found the requirements to be rather greater, Davis resigned as Brexit Secretary.

His cabinet colleague Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, asserted in July 2017 that a new British trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” (negotiations have yet to begin).In a de facto positive discrimination scheme, Leave supporters such as Andrea Leadsom (House of Commons leader), Fox and Boris Johnson (former foreign secretary, lest we forget) have been elevated far beyond their means. 

Michael Gove’s declaration in June 2016 that “the people of this country have had enough of experts” is sometimes unfairly lampooned. The Environment Secretary’s full quote made clear that he was referring to those from “organisations with acronyms – saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong, because these people - these people - are the same ones who got it consistently wrong.” And, indeed, many such organisations were wrong about the financial crisis, the euro and austerity.

But the ignocracy ruled by the ignorant or mediocracy  ruled by the mediocre  that Britain increasingly resembles is surely not the alternative that Gove had in mind. At the commanding heights of British government, amateurism has become normalised.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.