It sounds like something out of a political satire show. A Prime Minister currently under fire for threatening to break international law calls a last-minute, late-afternoon political rally of Tory MPs in which he attempts to muster patriotism and obedience — over Zoom. The video call attended by 256 MPs on the 11th of September descended into farce when Boris Johnson’s rallying cry was interrupted by technical issues, forcing him to exit the chat — a scenario which must have been a little like a harried and under-qualified supply teacher rushing from the classroom to scream in the hallway whilst their charges run wild.
According to PoliticsHome, after Boris vanished mid-speech an argument erupted between his predecessor Theresa May and notable Eurosceptic Steve Baker about who should chair the meeting in his stead. Any semblance of ‘order, order’ was then promptly broken down by MP Michael Fabricant, who began singing Rule, Britannia! from a page of printed lyrics. Is this an outburst of patriotism or a sign that Tory MPs are so mired in controversies they’re muddling them up? If you haven’t heard of Fabricant, he’s best known for his haircut — there’s even a whole section of his Wikipedia page dedicated to it.
There’s an alternate reality (we might call it ‘normality’) in which Boris Johnson’s meeting took place in an imposing Downing Street office or the vaunted halls of a parliamentary committee room, perhaps under the aegis of the 1922 Committee. Not in 2020. In 2020, British politics, with its long tradition of pomp and ceremony, doesn’t stick to age old grand conventions. In 2020, British politics is a mess.
It isn’t only Coronavirus which has scuppered politics’ traditional grandeur; in fact, the pandemic is just the latest development in an ongoing process of demystification. Since the 1990s, reforms such as the 2005 Constitutional Reform Act creating the Supreme Court and the 1999 House of Lords Act restricting hereditary peers have increased political transparency and accountability. Accompanying technological changes including televised parliamentary sessions and committee hearings, as well as the increasing use of social media by politicians, has brought politics closer to the public arena than ever before.
Now that we can tune in to BBC Parliament whenever we fancy, we know what’s happening in the once inaccessible, towering chambers of the Commons and Lords. Except this might have had a rather unwanted outcome for our politicians. Rather than being more informed about the impressive goings-on of our political superiors, the British public has been shown in often excruciating detail the flaws and follies of those in power. Between John Bercow and Michael Gove’s joshing about their shared school run (‘Be a good boy!’ the former Speaker hollered at the minister), Jacob Rees Mogg’s propensity for lounging on the front-benches like a Dickensian villain, and that famous moment back in 2018 when Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle seized the ceremonial mace (otherwise known as the parliamentary talking stick), Parliament looks more like a children’s ball-pit than a chamber of state. Long gone are the days of eloquent orators like Pitt, Disraeli, Fox, and Gladstone. Even Robin Cook’s electrifying 2003 resignation speech seems ancient history.
But Coronavirus and all its baggage might be the nail in the coffin of parliamentary dignity. Away from the grandeur of Westminster and Number 10, politicians don’t look powerful, or dignified, or even qualified for the job. Think of the Prime Minister missing a handful of COBRA meetings and downplaying the virus, only to be struck by it himself. Uploading a phone video from his sickroom in April, he looked very far from the populist firebrand who had won a huge parliamentary majority only months before.
Beyond the difficulty of controlling image and discipline in an age of fear and disconnect, remote briefings and debates have drawn attention to the hypocrisy of our politicians, as when Transport Secretary Grant Schapps told the nation to ‘go back to work’…from the comfort of his home office. Or when Dominic Cummings refused to step down, and wasn’t fired, for his illicit trip to Durham whilst the rest of the country was locked down at home.
During the pandemic, the perversion of fact and amplification of rhetoric which has come to define the post-2008 era has reached a new level. Despite government claims about testing capacity, Health Minister Matt Hancock has repeatedly come under fire for twisting the statistics about test and trace. It’s been less than a month since the pandemic would be ‘over by Christmas’ and now we’re being warned of six months more restrictions at least. Surely the infamous WW1 overtones of ’over by Christmas’ must have rung a bell in somebody’s mind? While it’s all very well to announce ‘moonshot’ programs, during a time of crisis none of that matters if they don’t have substantive gains. Look at the much-lauded NHS Track and Trace app, which only appeared this week after six months of bumbling.
The screw-ups and U-turns play out live in front of our eyes. And the pandemic is a great leveller. From care homes to A-Levels, everyone has been affected, and everyone is angry. YouGov polling shows that since the start of lockdown on the 23rd of March, the government’s approval rating has consistently fallen, inversely proportional to its rising disapproval rating. It is becoming increasingly clear that Boris Johnson and his cabinet are chronically unqualified to run the country. Concerns raised by moderate Conservatives and the other parties during the December election have been proven entirely founded, yet the consequences have been more dire than anyone could have imagined.
When Johnson was elected on a vast majority in December, he might have expected an easy ride. He might even have expected it to be fun — vanquishing the villainous EU, quashing the Left, and stifling opposition from within his own party through deselection. That wasn’t what he got, and the result has been a shambles given coherency only by the government’s refusal to admit fault.
Politics isn’t about grandeur and pomp, highfalutin rhetoric and parliamentary banter. It’s gritty and dirty and everyday and it matters. The Coronavirus pandemic has shown that, and proven that politics is quite literally a matter of life and death for all of us. Whether it is ensuring access to PPE, protecting the income of those who cannot work, and safeguarding the future and mental health of the nation’s youth, the task of governing is immense and important. Boris Johnson and his inept cabinet might like the glitz and grandeur of British democratic politics, but they are repeatedly failing to live up to its ideals.
If the government cannot represent and protect the people of this country in the face of the Coronavirus crisis, they must face up to their failings and they must do it now, before more lives are ruined by their unwillingness and incompetence.