Voters are being offered the Devil’s choice

Published by The i paper (9th December, 2019)

Weary British voters head back to the polls this week. They have many concerns of crucial importance swirling around their heads from resolving the Brexit nightmare that has convulsed the country through to improving our housing, hospitals, schools and rail services. The issues at stake – from rupture with Europe through to the revival of socialism – will define our nation for decades. Indeed, they could lead to break-up of the union that has bound us together for centuries. Yet at heart, this needless election revolves around trust.

It is about trust in democracy after a referendum. It is about trust in politicians that play pathetic tribal games while ignoring major issues. It is about trust in two parties that steered our nation successfully through recent history but have hurtled to hard extremes. And it is about trust in a battered political system that feels anachronistic in a digitally-induced age of disruption and populism. Yet the unfortunate electorate is being offered a miserable choice, leading to grave risk the result will intensify the alarming lack of faith in Westminster that undermines stability and unity.

When I talk to people across the land about politics, I am usually struck by their decency, humanity and moderation. Yet our nation feels at war with itself, pumped up by two opposing tribes and their activists on social media. Now voters are being offered a pair of potential prime ministers who seem frighteningly ill-suited for the serious task of navigating through tempestuous seas that lie ahead.

One candidate believes in nothing beyond himself, prepared to say and do anything to further his selfish ambitions, while the other fixed his views in street politics half a century ago and has never budged despite immense changes over subsequent decades. Truly, this is the devil’s choice. The sad truth is neither man merits the trust of the nation.

But let us start with Boris Johnson, the prime minister. He stands on the threshold of winning, ahead in the polls by skilfully uniting the Leave vote despite running the most unpopular new government on record. He has achieved this by transforming the Tories into an English nationalist force, purging moderates who disagreed with him including one former deputy prime minister, two chancellors and several grandees. He talks of One Nation while pursuing divisive policies on Brexit and reviving the nasty party brand with crude rhetoric on crime and migration.

He has left the Brexit Party writhing in the dust. It is irrelevant since Johnson, who claims to be a liberal Tory, has given his party a nationalist makeover. Bear in mind this self-serving man is prepared to stoop so low that he played with racist and homophobic tropes in his newspaper columns, masking bigotry behind bonhomie and bluster.

Now he alienates many female voters. And he has pursued a short-sighted strategy of abandoning fiscal responsibility, brushing aside business interests and tilting his party towards social conservatism as he seeks to win Leave-supporting seats in the Midlands and North. This will have long-term repercussions for the Conservatives among younger, ethnic minority and Southern voters.

Johnson is also a serial liar. No-one should be surprised, given his career mishaps before parliament. But as prime minister he has been deceitful on issue after issue: prorogation of parliament, extension of Brexit talks, need for an election, building of hospitals, even the social care plan he claimed to possess as he stood on the steps of Downing Street.

On Sunday, he was still falsely claiming there will not be checks for goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain under his Brexit deal. Even his catchphrase of ‘Get Brexit Done’ is dishonest, since we are only in first stage of divorce proceedings and his timescale is near-impossible. Such cavalier behaviour stores up problems at a time when voters are already so mistrustful of politicians.

His rival Jeremy Corbyn is even more repellent to moderates – as party canvassers hear endlessly on doorsteps. Labour’s leader cannot be trusted on Brexit since we do not know where he stands. He cannot be trusted on the economy since his plans are ludicrous, claiming he can raise £83bn from business and high-earners before suddenly chucking in another £58bn pledge on pensions to seduce some disgruntled women voters.

He cannot be trusted on national security when he praises left-wing dictators, promotes terrorist groups and panders to Vladimir Putin’s worldview. Most disturbingly, he could not even be trusted to protect female Jewish MPs from the anti-Semitic hate mob that corrodes the hard-left and has ended up staining his party.

So where does this leave us? The Liberal Democrats have had a poor campaign, squeezed out of debates and stumbling badly under their inexperienced leader. Their key policy on revoking Brexit alienates many voters. Yet Jo Swinson seems sensible if compared with her dismal rivals. Their economic and climate policies are the most practical on offer. At national level, they are the best choice for voters who reject both hard Brexit and the hard left in hope they can restrain the extremists.

In some seats, there is also an argument for tactical voting, especially where there are politicians standing such as David Gauke who have put country before career.

There is no good outcome to this election. Voters are being offer an abysmal and demeaning choice, which highlights the urgent need for political reform. There are many fine people on both sides of the tribal divide, yet neither of the party leaders tussling for the keys to Downing Street can be trusted to salve our troubled nation’s festering wounds. As former occupant Tony Blair said last week, better a parliament hung for want of a majority than a country that is hung for want of good leadership.

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