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Nothing will ever be the same again

Julia Langdon - The Tablet - Thu, Sep 5th 2019

‘Warmth and passion’: Lord Heseltine addresses anti-Brexiteers at the People’s Vote March Photo: PA, Yui Mok

Even the Queen is said not to be amused by the current state of representative democracy in her realm, and ordinary voters, whether leave or remain, are bored and confused

Our politics has been characterised by uncertainty for the last three years. It has upset both tradition and precedent and discomfited almost everyone. The majority of politicians, whatever their age or party, are uneasy and uncomfortable at their inability to see the way ahead. The Establishment – which is to say the people who run things, like Whitehall and the Law and the City – is profoundly rattled. The electorate, however they voted in the 2016 referendum, is bored by the prevalence of Brexit as the only topic in the national conversation and longs for some everyday predictability to be restored. 

Meanwhile, the Queen is reported to be “disappointed” by the current class of politicians and its governing abilities. While this news took three years to reach the front pages of the newspapers, dating as it did from the time immediately following David Cameron’s resignation as prime minister, it is not difficult to presume that her disappointment is unlikely to have been allayed in the intervening period.

Indeed, given the heady incoherence of the first days of the administration of her fourteenth prime minister, coupled with the implications of the latest political developments on the state of the Union, it seems highly probable that she may not be relaxing in the fresh Highland air of Balmoral with her usual summertime equanimity.

I imagine that the Queen reads the Scottish newspapers in London anyway. Therefore, reading the latest analysis of the enhanced prospects for an independent Scotland while actually on the spot will make little difference to her gloomy appreciation of the fact that Boris Johnson could easily be on course to be her last prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

We do not often get direct reports of the Queen’s responses to political events, but knowing that she “purred down the line” to Mr Cameron after the result of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence gives a strong clue to how she views the run-up to “Indyref 2”, as it is known in Inverness. For the Queen, as for the rest of us, the only certainty we can draw from the present state of play is nothing will ever be the same again.

It is becoming hard to keep count of the extent to which this is true. A former Conservative Party chairman tells me, without a shred of embarrassment, or even a suggestion that it was even remarkable, that he voted for the Liberal Democrats in the European elections this year; he was merely measuring the distance between himself and government policy. There may be an element of “so what?” about this, but it is hard for those who remember the likes of Lord Thorneycroft not to imagine him shuddering at the very thought of such apostasy in one of his successors. 

Yet Cherie Blair – yes, that Cherie Blair – did the same thing, although in her case it was to repudiate the current leadership of the Labour Party. So did the former Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke, who in another life once ran the private office of the then leader of the Labour Party (Neil Kinnock). So too, of course, did Alastair Campbell, who was expelled from the Labour Party for his trouble, a punishment he has since felt able to embrace.

And here is Betty Boothroyd, a Labour MP before becoming Speaker, jointly penning an article with Tory grandee Michael Heseltine as politicians who “treasure our Parliament as a symbol of our country’s hard-won freedoms …” calling on the MPs in today’s House of Commons to defend the democracy for which previous generations fought and died. That’s the same Baroness Boothroyd who feels so strongly about the threat of a no-deal Brexit and the need for another public vote on Europe that she earlier revealed something that no cross-bencher, let alone a former Speaker of the House of Commons, would normally do: she disclosed that she also failed to support Labour in the European elections (in which peers can vote). 

She did not say how she voted, but that’s not the point. And it’s the same Lord Heseltine, now the sage of Thenford Arboretum but once known universally as “Tarzan”, who has been moved before to demonstrate his enraged protest at government policy by seizing the mace – the very symbol of parliamentary authority – and waving it in the face of the Labour government front bench. 

Yet even that defiant gesture made all those years ago, before Mr Johnson was even a schoolboy at Eton, pales beside his storming public performances in pursuit of the “People’s Vote”. Veterans of public protest reported themselves astounded by the warmth and passion that Heseltine, 86 last March, elicited from the crowds as he led them – hailing them as “You the people!” – on the last People’s Vote march in the capital.

There are many other examples to illustrate this shaking kaleidoscope of political relationships. At Westminster, the new Johnson government apparently intends to continue the confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionists, despite the incongruence thrown up both by the on-going lack of any government in Northern Ireland and the Irish border issue. There are a host of emerging new political allegiances at Westminster, of cross-party WhatsApp groups, of rumours of recruits to the Independent Group of MPs, or to Change UK (if it’s still there), or about the puzzling new social democratic “Future” group set up within the Labour Party by its own deputy leader, Tom Watson, of which little has been heard – perhaps because its time has not yet come. We are told of further rumours about how many MPs are prepared to vote against their party whips to assert their own political positions in the coming parliamentary struggle next month, of the uncertain outcome of a vote of confidence, or a vote of no confidence, either of which might predicate an early general election of no certain outcome.

Little surprise, therefore, that murmurs continue about the need for a government of national unity, although the remarkable suggestion from the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, that this might be best achieved by first forming a crisis cabinet of women only, was perhaps even more indicative of the widespread state of national uncertainty. I cannot let pass the brave initiative from Ms Lucas without commenting, however, that it was a shame that Labour’s Diane Abbott, in condemning what she saw as a backdoor route to a national government, tweeted that it “didn’t work for Ramsey Mcdonald”, thus managing to get three spelling mistakes into the name of her party’s first prime minister. 

And that brings me to the only area of our national political crisis where there is no official uncertainty: the Labour Party leadership, at least, purports to know what it is doing. Jeremy Corbyn is leading a dedicated group of people who have captured the Labour Party and are using it in pursuit of power. There are many conflicting issues within this group, not least whether Mr Corbyn should be its leader and, if not, who should replace him.

The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, the man who is really in charge, has successfully recast his own public image since he appeared on the Opposition front bench from the political shadows of the outside left-wing, but he has not changed. He may have convinced even some Conservative MPs of his credibility as a democrat, but his commitment to his lifetime’s pursuit of the power, which is now within his grasp, was demonstrated in Edinburgh earlier this month.

By revealing that the Labour Party would not object to the Scottish Nationalists’ desire for a second referendum on independence in Scotland, Mr McDonnell gave notice that the Labour Party is prepared to sacrifice the future of its seven MPs in Scotland in the interests of securing the support of the SNP at Westminster – even if it is at the price of a referendum, which opinion polling in Scotland has now indicated might indeed produce a majority in favour of a separate Scotland. 

It was not an accident that Mr McDonnell casually discarded the future of the Union because, given a second opportunity, he repeated the point – just as another opinion poll in Scotland indicated that Mr Johnson’s increasingly likely no-deal Brexit will accelerate the demand for independence. There is a chilling certainty to such single-minded determination, which the Queen, for one, is likely to find more than disappointing.

Julia Langdon is The Tablet’s lobby correspondent.

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