We need strong leaders, not technocrats

Published by The i paper (8th April, 2019)

Politics is a strange business at the best of times. And these are far from the best of times. Britain is being buffeted by the fury of a Brexit whirlwind as it rips open fissures, uproots parliamentary conventions and shakes the political system. The only thing that unites our combative nation – from ruddy-faced rural nativists through to globe-trotting millennials – is despair at the failure of elected representatives who seem so tragically inadequate to the challenges confronting the country.

Academics will be kept busy arguing over the causes of our self-inflicted crisis and generations of students given exam papers asking about the roots of Britain’s idiocy. Their answers will ponder the influence of the 2008 financial meltdown, the impact of inequality, the failure of the two-party system, the effects of technology and the ramifications of globalisation. Some might mention race, religion, migration, the expenses scandal, destruction of trust, the breakdown of communal values, the dominance of London, even the end of empire.

Yet one key factor is the corrosion of British politics – as seen in a tweet sent last week by Tom Newton Dunn, the perceptive political editor of The Sun and near-permanent fixture on television analysing the latest Brexit contortions. ‘If anyone’s having a good Brexit, it’s Matt Hancock. Another unflappable media round on a very difficult wicket. Well worth a fiver at 20-1 for the top job. Those odds will shorten.’ Sure enough the odds have shortened, the tea-room chatter intensified and the Health Secretary is writing articles to show he is a Tory leadership contender.

But step back for a second. Yes, Hancock is a competent media performer, if not overburdened with charisma. He is comfortable in the spotlight and happily defends the latest government absurdity. Yet why does this make him a candidate to run our country, especially at this fragile point in our history?

I accept he is clever, can talk about technology and has even ridden a horse to victory at Newmarket. But he has no discernible ideology, no driving desire for passionate change and has achieved almost nothing in politics beyond survival and reaching the Cabinet last year.

I do not mean to pick on Hancock – although his talk of showing “we value every single person in our society” grates horribly from a politician who has slowed efforts to free people with autism and learning disabilities from abusive incarceration in secure units. Several other names bandied around in the leadership stakes would be more alarming to see attain power.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson leads the field as favourite despite a dismal record of duplicity and incompetence, largely because he can make classical quips and plumped for Brexit to promote his career. Another triumph of style over substance.

But Hancock symbolises a type of politician that seems only interested in reaching the top of the tree, those smooth technocrats wearing principles as casually as a party baseball cap while they calculate their route to Downing Street.He might make a decent chancellor. But he is the sort of Tory that devours Tony Blair’s autobiography as a guide to politics, not a testament to the flaws of triangulation and grotesque foreign policy failure. As his party gears up for another leadership battle, it should ponder if it needs more than a strong media performer at this profound turning point.

Whatever happens over coming months, the Conservative brand has been trashed after inflicting this Brexit nightmare on the nation. On one flank, there is angry talk of betrayal among voters; on the other, a sense of revulsion that has alienated vast chunks of the electorate and younger generations.

New forces are emerging to right and left while the Tories have destroyed their reputation for competence, for pragmatism, for backing business and for guarding national interests. They are so divided and vacillating it is hard to discern if they still support capitalism, let alone austerity. If Labour had a halfway decent leader, it would be way ahead in polls.

Conservative problems have been inflamed by a weak Prime Minister’s chronic inability to communicate. Politics is veering ever closer to reality television so the ability to talk to voters is vital. Yet the public also craves authenticity, such an asset in the digital age, and desperately wants politicians deserving of trust.

Tories need to work out what they stand for again and where they will find future voters if they want to survive in fluid times. The political system needs to find ways to restore faith. And the country needs real leadership to rebuild public services, reunite the nation and restore our battered global reputation.

Politics is about compromise but should also be about vision. We have seen over the past two decades that spin can win elections but ends up debasing politics and destroying trust. I recall Blair’s aides talking about the need to tackle cynicism while lying about divisions in Downing Street, not to mention Iraq. A succession of hollow prime ministers have attained office by playing Westminster games with skill but ended up shrivelling in power.

Blair and David Cameron were slick but ultimately shallow, while Gordon Brown and Theresa May spent years striving for the top job only to look bereft of ideas and out of depth after finally entering Downing Street.
Inside the bubble they obsess over soap opera politics, media performances and minor gaffes.

But as this debacle drags on major issues are being ignored, many citizens suffering and public services creaking. The last thing Britain, Westminster or the Tory Party needs now is another politician attaining power on the basis they can spew out soundbites, duck questions and defend the indefensible. Johnson can crack jokes and Hancock might be unflappable – but don’t we need more than that from our next prime minister at this portentous point in history?

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