First Thoughts: Chris Grayling’s only victory, Corbyn’s hinterland and how to run a People’s Vote

In the 17th century, eggs were commonly roasted on spits, but they were apt to explode, creating the most fearful mess – as Grayling always does.

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The word of the moment, appearing with growing frequency on social media and in newspapers, is “kakistocracy”, which means government by the incompetent (kakistos was the Greek word for worst). It could have been invented for the likes of our own Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, our Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, and our Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson. Grayling can’t find a company that actually owns ferries to run emergency post-Brexit ferry services. Fox can’t persuade any countries other than Israel, Switzerland, the Faroe Islands and a few other minnows to sign post-Brexit trade deals. Williamson aims to “enhance our lethality” by establishing bases and deploying warships east of Suez, apparently unaware that we abandoned such extravagances over 50 years ago because we couldn’t afford them.

The first recorded use of kakistocracy was by a preacher called Paul Gosnold in 1644. He was a royalist lamenting attempts to transform “our well-temperd Monarchy into a mad kinde of Kakistocracy”. But in discussing Fox, Grayling and other failed Brexiteer ministers such as Boris Johnson and David Davis, it is hard to improve on his denunciation of “Sanctimonious Incendiaries, who have fetched fire from heaven to set their Country in combustion… who seek their private ends in the publicke disturbance, and have set their Kingdome on fire to rost their owne eggs… who are stung with a perpetuall itch of changing and innovating”.

Spitting image

Gosnold’s metaphor was well chosen. In the 17th century, eggs were commonly roasted on spits over a roaring fire. Unless they were done exactly right, however, they were apt to explode, creating the most fearful mess, as Grayling always does.

Just once, he roasted his eggs correctly, making himself unsackable. That was when he ran Theresa May’s leadership campaign. It helped that her main rivals knocked each other out, but Grayling was there, beaming at the cameras, when she got over the finishing line. Perhaps, if May’s Brexit strategy works brilliantly after all, he will be hailed as a champion egg roaster and receive the acclaim of a grateful nation.

All change

A second Brexit referendum, or “People’s Vote”, is an idea that won’t go away. Here’s how to give it a better chance. Propose legislation declaring that this referendum, and all future ones, shall require a 60 per cent majority overall, plus simple majorities in each of the UK’s four constituent nations, if the status quo is to change.

Since the status quo is that we are leaving the EU, Remainers would need to win by at least 60-40 to get their way, as well as winning majorities in both England and Wales, which voted Leave in 2016. Brexiteers would look silly if they opposed a referendum offered on those terms. Would they really plead that they weren’t confident of polling even 40.1 per cent of the UK vote?

Unfit for office

The Mail on Sunday gives us 13 pages of extracts from a new biography of Jeremy Corbyn that “every voter must read”. It “reveals” that Corbyn “secretly” believes in Brexit. He “has no interest in culture or in reading books” (a weakness, I can “reveal”, shared by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn). He prefers to watch “peasants going about their lives” rather than walk through Prague’s medieval quarters. He “was on the brink of retiring to Wiltshire to keep bees” before he became leader.

The Mail gives the lowdown on Corbyn’s “cold-hearted neglect” of his second wife. Did he beat her, starve her, shout at her? Not quite. He refused to move the family home out of his Islington constituency to the leafy London suburbs. Is there damning evidence of Corbyn spending lavishly at taxpayers’ expense? Again, not quite. He paid “rent and some staff salaries out of his own pocket” at a community centre in his constituency. As his first wife testified, “he never talked about buying a bigger home or car or increasing his income”.

The Mail on Sunday’s conclusion is that Corbyn “is unfit for office”. I would apply that description to Ted Verity, the editor who decided to publish this tired old tittle-tattle as a front-page “exclusive”.

The 7 per cent problem

A new book on fee-charging schools, Engines of Privilege (reviewed last month in the NS), drops on my desk. I turn to the index to see if I am mentioned, a narcissistic habit shared by most journalists and politicians. I find several references to my attempts to solve what the authors – the education academic Francis Green and the historian David Kynaston – call “the private school problem”. As regular readers will know, I have proposed that places should be reserved at Oxford, Cambridge and other elite universities for the highest achieving two or three pupils from every school in the country. Eton could then get no more top university places than a Sunderland comprehensive.

Green and Kynaston correctly state that this idea, though it inspired a play performed at the Old Vic in London, “failed… to achieve traction”. Of course it did. It would deal a mortal blow to the perpetuation of English upper-middle-class privileges down the generations.

Reform school

To the Reform Club in London’s Pall Mall for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the opinion pollsters Ipsos Mori. Before the usual self-congratulatory speeches, we are shown the company’s founder, Robert Worcester, being interviewed by the late David Frost in 2010. The TV clip flashes back to Worcester saying, in April that year, that, after the following month’s poll, David Cameron would enter Downing Street. Nobody explains why we have to watch this. But I assume it was the last time any pollster accurately predicted the result of a British general election.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 15 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam