A Minister who had presided over a fiasco as major as Gavin Williamson has with the A-Level results algorithm problems would – in normal times – have either resigned or been sacked.
A Special Adviser who had admitted a major breach of lockdown rules would – in normal times – have been removed, rather than being granted a press conference in the garden of Downing Street. And then carrying on giving out public contracts to firms that have remarkably close relationships with his mates.
A Tory Party that had paid so little attention to Russian influence on UK elections would – in normal times – have faced one hell of a lot more critique in light of the Russia Report than it did.
A government that had presided over one of the highest Coronavirus death rates, and excess deaths, in Europe would – in normal times – be panicking and seeking every competent person to steady the ship. Instead it abolished Public Health England and appointed Dido Harding, fresh from the track and trace fiasco, to run the successor organisation.
Meanwhile a government facing a contraction of the economy deeper than any other in Europe, and deeper than anything felt in decades, would – in normal times – be fearing how the population would react.
An administration that had undertaken one of the most complex tasks in peacetime (leaving the EU) would – in normal times – have understood the complexity of what it faced and taken the offer of an extension of the Transition Period to smooth the process of exit. But no, the deadline to do that has passed.
The problem, it seems to me as an observer looking at the UK from Germany, is what is going on in the UK is so very far from normal. But commentators have been unable to adjust their yardsticks to account for the new reality.
Take this tweet from the normally astute Jon Lis for example:
The UK establishment has used EU as a scapegoat and whipping boy for 40 years to cover up British failure. That no longer works. Literally the point of Brexit is to go it alone. For the first time, there’ll be no-one else to blame but the ones who’ve always been to blame: us.
— Jonathan Lis (@jonlis1) August 24, 2020
Logically, now having left the EU, the UK Government should no longer be able to blame the EU for its failings. But there is still a lot more road in that blame game. And if the UK crashes over the cliff with no deal by the end of the year, you can bet the fingers will be pointed at the EU and Barnier and Merkel and Von Der Leyen and whoever else they can think of, not actually instead to take a step back and realise the promises of Brexit will all hollow, all along. If there is anything that is a hard and fast rule of this UK Government it is “never apologise“.
Or take last week’s have-your-truck-full-of-cake-and-eat-it – the UK was shocked that the EU would not allow UK truckers to do deliveries between EU member states from the start of 2021. That, the EU said, is a benefit of the Single Market, that you, UK, have left. Cue screams of unfairness from the UK. It could be solved of course, if the UK accepted aspects of the Single Market – like legal oversight of trucking rules by the European Court of Justice. But that is the dastardly EU preventing the UK being free.
Round and round we go.
The UK wants to be able to do in the EU what it will not allow the EU to do in the UK. And then is surprised that the EU will not play that way.
What is going to change any of this?
The only impact, I think, is if the Tories think all of these many fiascoes are damaging their standing and popularity. At the moment they are still 2 points ahead in the polls, and with Starmer just ahead of Johnson as to who would be the best Prime Minister. At the moment that is not nearly enough to begin to worry Downing Street. Some of the Tories in the ‘red wall’ seats might be starting to grumble a little, but it’s simpler to complain about those pointing out the problems (see, never apologise) than it is to seek to fix them.
Starmer seems to be playing the long game, assuming that the Tories will see out their 5 year term in office, and a play it slow and steady approach from Labour is the right response (Stephen Bush has a good summary of what Starmer is trying to do). But somehow that also seems to me what the strategy ought to be for normal times, based on the assumption that a government will run its course. Yet this Johnson administration seems to fail faster, to be embroiled in sleaze faster, to seek to destroy things faster than its predecessors – while Labour looks like it is back to playing politics according to the rules of some time around 2007.
What is happening politically in Whitehall at the moment is not normal. Or at least it is not the normal we used to know. Historical comparisons and the rules of thumb we have built up over decades looking at British politics no longer apply. Acknowledging that is at least a starting point to then better analyse what is happening.