The age of unleadership: why the opposition is failing miserably

Labour should be destroying the Conservative Party’s record at every turn. Instead we have an opposition that is lethargic and divided.

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Back in the good old days, when we had a strong and stable government, a prime minister who could lead, a cabinet with strength in depth, and, dare I say it,  a director of communications and strategy with the know-how to direct both, I never much bought the idea that democracy needs a strong opposition. 

Indeed, part of the New Labour thinking was that we had to keep the opposition weak. Even when Iain Duncan Smith was leader – when everyone including Mrs IDS knew he was never going to be prime minister – we had regular meetings with one item on the agenda, to ask “if they knew about us what we know, what would they do with it?” It was a way of addressing our own problems before the other side had worked them out. 

We were blessed by its continuing divisions on Europe, its inability to decide whether Tony Blair was Stalin or Bambi, and a succession of leaders incapable of uniting the Tories around a vision that might challenge the appeal of New Labour. 

So, despite crises, setbacks and occasional scandals, we dominated for over a decade and won three elections with big majorities. The third one, after the Iraq War, secured a majority that today’s main party leaders can only dream of; right now, neither of them has a hope in hell of getting one like it.

Would we have done better as a government had there been a stronger opposition? Maybe. Would Tony Blair have been sharper had he worried more about the succession of Tory leaders that he faced and saw off? Perhaps. But he did see them all off, and was beginning to get the measure of David Cameron when the time finally came to make way for Gordon Brown. 

The point about IDS is that when the opposition was weak, the government had a responsibility to analyse itself from its perspective too, assuming it knew what it was doing. 

So maybe deep down, I did think that a strong opposition was important. Perhaps it was less obvious because we had a strong government. But I certainly think it now. I cannot recall any period in my lifetime when we had both a weak government and a weak opposition. It is one of the many things that is making millions of people acutely aware of just how important political leadership is, but also making them anxious and fearful for the future. 

We do not need to waste too much time on the weakness of the government. The prime minister looks perfectly at home stewarding a fun run in her Maidenhead constituency, but palpably out of her depth at an EU Summit. She and her government had one overriding challenge – to deliver Brexit – but they have failed to do so, because nobody can deliver the undeliverable: a pain-free Brexit.

Then there is the cabinet. Divided on Brexit, instead of helping May on Brexit or doing the job set out in their ministerial titles, its members are engaged in an unseemly leadership contest in the middle of a national crisis. May seems unable or unwilling to confront their divisions, her weakness exacerbated by her pre-announced departure,

So Jeremy Hunt flies to Japan to lie to students about what the EU wants – “Europe as one country, whereas we want to be independent,” (such is the Trumpian hold on our politics, nobody bats an eyelid), while Sajid Javid is so busy weaving a poverty backstory and making speeches “as a father” that he has taken his eye off issues the public want addressed, like crime.

Matt Hancock, Liz Truss, Michael Gove, Penny Mordaunt, Amber Rudd – they are so busy making speeches loosely entitled “whither Conservatism if you make me leader” that their departments are as rudderless and badly led as No 10. 

I was having lunch in a Westminster café shortly before Easter. A civil servant who used to work for me in No 10 spotted and joined me. He’s now at the Department of Transport. “I know you think it’s bad”, he said. “But you have no idea just how bad. The place is dysfunctional.” He recalled one of the worst crises we had had to deal with – the fuel protests just after the turn of the century. “Every day feels like that now.”

But then he made another vital point ... “what does it say about the opposition that my boss [Chris Grayling] is still there? We don’t feel the heat from No 10 and we don’t feel the heat from Labour. He thinks he is unsackable, and he probably is.” And with that he went back to calculating how much compensation the taxpayer would have to fork out for no-deal planning and contracts that would never be implemented.

So whether you need a strong opposition to counter a strong government or not, you certainly need one to hold a weak government to account. Mr Grayling’s survival is living proof that we don’t have one. Imagine what a Gordon Brown or a Robin Cook or a John Reid or a Margaret Beckett would have done to Grayling. Or to Hunt and Javid, with their born-again Brexiteering and the vacation of their day jobs.

Or to Hancock with his endless wittering about social media, while the NHS falls ever deeper into a crisis that harms patients but pleases the right of his party, gagging for a trade deal with the US and an Americanised health system. Or to Duncan Smith, not in government, but in and out of Downing Street as some kind of Brexit policy expert – the man whose universal credit policy alone, properly taken apart by the opposition, would leave him scared to get out of bed, never mind go into the Today programme studio for his weekly 08.10 love-in with John Humphrys on David Davis’s days off.

Labour should be destroying these people. Day in, day out. No rest. No respite. Instead we have an opposition that is lethargic and divided – the divisions not as visceral as the Conservative Party perhaps, but their impact just as corrosive. A new word must be invented for these times. Unleadership. We see it on both sides of the despatch box. 

These are politicians. Politics is supposed to be in their blood. Yet both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are currently driven by a desperation to avoid taking an electoral pulse on the will of the people. They don’t want a referendum because it would mean holding European elections. And they don’t want European elections because they’re worried they won’t do very well. Is this what our politics is now reduced to?

In the era of unleadership, we have uncampaigns. I can hear the timid voices around May and Corbyn looking at the so-called Farage surge and telling each other this justifies their timidity. “You see, if we have the elections, he will take votes from us, Prime Minister …” so she replies: “Yes, this shows we must do everything possible to avoid them”  ... “what if he takes votes from us, Jeremy?” “Yes,” says Corbyn, “this shows we are right to keep facing both ways, not upset Leavers by saying Brexit must happen, keep Remainers on board by talking about keeping ‘the option of a popular vote’ on the table but going no further.”

It might have worked in the 2017 election (though remember, Labour lost to the worst Tory campaign of all time) but it won’t work now, when we know so much more about Brexit and these are – clue in the title – the European elections. Remember too that just over four million who voted Labour in the last European elections are outnumbered by the six million plus who have signed a petition not just for a “people’s vote” but to revoke the whole damn Brexit process. I doubt that they, or the hundreds of thousands who have marched for a people’s vote, are going to trudge to the polling station for more unleadership, and the unconstructive ambiguity of a policy that takes a lot longer to explain than “the Brexit Party.”

It is hardly surprising that Nigel Farage is doing well. He has managed to distance himself, with the barmpots’ help, from the barmpots of his former party, Ukip. He is a good campaigner, and his campaign is made easy when the two main parties appear frightened of their shadows and allow his narrative to go unchallenged, helped by a media that is either ideologically pro-Brexit or excited that a Farage win would be the “best story” in these turbulent times. 

Labour needs clarity, too, with a manifesto which begins as follows. “Brexit is the defining issue of these elections and of our time. As the Brexit process has gone so badly, as the Brexit negotiated by the Tories has been rejected by parliament and public alike, we go into these elections committed to a final say referendum on whatever the outcome of the negotiations may be.”

I would like the party to go further, and to say that in the event of such a referendum Labour would want Remain on the ballot paper and would campaign for that outcome. Given its unleadership, that may be expecting too much. But if it doesn’t do at least the first half, whatever votes it fears losing in its mythologised and – see the recent article by Northern MPs debunking the stereotype – misrepresentative view of the North as a homogenous Brexitland, such loss will be dwarfed by the number of votes – and members – it will lose all over the country. Not because it is me that is saying it; but because it is blindingly obvious to anyone with a strategic bone in their body. 

Don’t just dismiss Farage. Take a lesson. Take a position. And lead on it. Only then can Labour take him apart for the lies and the myths and the fantasies either that Brexit can be easily done, or that the problems in peoples’ lives will be solved by Brexit. These elections are a huge opportunity for Labour, for the political question they pose is this: who gains from the Tory implosion and the Brexit impasse? The answer ought to be Labour. Yet it’s Labour, more than Farage, which is in danger of making it the Brexit Party.

The time for unleadership is over. And if it is not reversed soon, Labour’s time may be over too.