Theresa’s travails – and why I’m launching a politics festival

Published by The i paper (19th June, 2017)

Like her or loathe her, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for Theresa May. All her life she has wanted to be prime minister. Having achieved her ambition last year, she seemed to have taken to the job with ease. She had few friends in Westminster but suddenly many fans. Yet in a few short weeks she has thrown away her majority, her reputation and in all likelihood her premiership. Her dreams are dashed, her hopes lie wrecked and her crushed face betrays stunned bewilderment as she struggles to reboot her rigid style.

This is sadly a familiar story: the politician who hankers after the top job only to be crushed by its weight once they reach the summit. Like Gordon Brown before her, May is a shy person who makes matters worse as she attempts to show empathy while being savaged by rivals scenting blood. It is almost painful observing her struggle to regain control of events as commentators call for her head, cartoonists mock without mercy and colleagues calculate when to move against her.

Watching her floundering as those all-important Brexit talks finally start makes you wonder why anyone would want to be a politician. Yet how easy to forget these great Westminster dramas revolve around human beings. Look at Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran champion of lost causes, who suddenly finds himself carried aloft on a wave of youthful adoration amid a possible sea-change in political climate. Or Michael Gove, reviled and revered in equal measure on his crazy rollercoaster of a career. Or Nick Clegg, fighting to retain composure before the camera as he learned Sheffield voters had rejected him after 12 years service.

Last year Clegg published a thoughtful book defending liberalism in which he tried to make sense of mainstream politics amid surging populism. He suggested leading players find themselves defined by a handful of snapshots that form a spinning zoetrope in the public mind. He believes his would feature the election debate that sparked ‘Cleggmania’, the chummy coalition launch in Downing Street’s garden, the tuition fees debacle, and finally his ignominious resignation as party leader. Perhaps now there is also his bold Brexit stance, plus that gloomy countenance after being ousted as an MP.

Clegg admits efforts to flesh out his portrait failed. This helps explain why I am launching a Politics Festival this weekend with fellow columnist Steve Richards and the support of this proudly non-aligned paper. Politics has rarely been more important – just look at the furious reaction to that hellish inferno in west London – yet politicians are often despised. Their job is made harder by shrill journalism and social media, inflaming divisions and depleting the talent pool. Yet derision is easy. Anger and hatred solves nothing. We need to appreciate the pressures these people are under, accept the messy compromises they must make and see the flaws in our system if we want to salvage our precious democracy.

People often moan that politics is boring – yet look at the passions it arouses. The truth is that it can be terrific theatre, as we see before our eyes with May’s dramatic fall. But it is striking how the lead actors are seen in such simplistic terms. Sometimes they deserve all the brickbats hurled their way. And yes, some are charlatans and chancers. But most are decent people doing difficult jobs in challenging circumstances, although this can be hard to appreciate amid the tedious tribalism, hostile interviews and snapshot of broadcasting. Even well-known figures can turn out to be more interesting and complex characters than their cartoonish zoetropes.

Our aim is to delve a little deeper into what drives those who dive into the maelstrom of modern politics. And what better time to hold this opening festival than on the anniversary of the Brexit referendum, a disruptive event that has altered national history, exacerbated divisions in society and raised so many difficult questions over the direction of our country? The event also comes after one of the most surprising elections in decades, highlighting again the risks in attempting to read the electorate’s volatile mood. Meanwhile we see resurgent nationalism across the West leading to the absurdity of Donald Trump in the White House and France’s fascinating response with Emmanuel Macron.

This feels like a pivotal point in history. No-one has clear view of the future. Yet politics feels trapped in the past, frustratingly partisan and often ignoring evidence. It was good to see Get Together events held in memory of the admirable Labour MP Jo Cox, an attempt to build bridges that seems to have struck a chord in many communities. Organisers rightly pointed out the crucial importance of finding areas of common ground rather than always focusing on disagreements. But attempts to do this in politics tend to lead to abuse. And note how attitudes towards participants in politics only soften after they leave the stage, as proved recently by the dancing Ed Balls.

French president Charles de Gaulle once said politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians. This is even more true now. So please do come and join discussions with the likes of Clegg, Gove, Balls, John Bercow, Harriet Harman, Nicky Morgan, James Cleverly and Ed Miliband plus commentators such as Owen Jones, Robert Peston, Polly Toynbee, Tim Montgomerie, Kirsty Lang, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Mathew D’Ancona and Justin Webb. There is even a diplomat explaining how he became an accidental anarchist and music from members of the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians with Maverick Sabre. Hope to see you there.

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