British politics is in a mess. The Brexit vote has opened a Pandora’s Box of chaos and crises, with hope seemingly reserved for a diminishing number of hard-core Leavers. Theresa May, hastily appointed in July, has struggled to persuade the public that she has a plan for Brexit with a recent ORB poll showing 62% disproved of the government’s handling of negotiations. Meanwhile, crises in social care, the NHS, and the Northern Ireland assembly rumble on, largely ignored by the government. Across the floor things aren’t going much better. Labour continue to languish over ten points behind the Tories in the polls and have yet to set out a coherent plan of their own for Brexit. Moreover, Jeremy Corbyn’s recent round of interviews has left voters confused about his position on immigration and stunned by his apparent plan to introduce a maximum wage. What do the state of Labour and Brexit negotiations say about our politics?
The most obvious answer is that British politics is riddled with incompetence. On Tuesday’s Today Programme Jeremy Corbyn failed to deflect prying questions from John Humphrys, a relatively soft interviewer, on executive pay and in a later speech presented a muddled position on free movement. These were far from the first gaffes of Corbyn’s leadership, and whilst some of the blame for Tuesday’s failures must lie with his speechwriters and advisors, there is an air of ineptitude around Labour’s top team. In six months as Prime Minister, Theresa May has not made a much better impression. The recent resignation of the UK’s ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, is the latest in a series of setbacks for May, following defeat in the High Court over the triggering of Article 50 and the spiralling crisis in social care. That the government have not managed to overcome their own internal divisions and produce a plan for Brexit suggests a fatal stubbornness; their failure to react to crises such as the one unfolding at Stormont, suggests incompetence.
Perhaps though, our politicians are simply struggling to keep up with the pace of change both in Britain and abroad. The much discussed rise of populism, culminating with the election of Donald Trump, alongside Britain’s unprecedented decision to leave the EU has left almost everyone involved in politics a step behind. Arguably, the uncertainty presented by Brexit could have been averted had the Leave side set out a plan during the referendum campaign. The earlier incompetence of Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and David Davis has left their government struggling to keep up. The pace of change is a problem for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour too. The party hasn’t had such a left-wing leader for decades, a product of its former leadership election process, and the veterans surrounding Corbyn have little or no experience holding such high office. Admittedly, the Islington North MP was first elected nearly eighteen months ago, but with severe internal divisions, the EU referendum and a second leadership election to contend with its no surprise he hasn’t settled in to the role yet.
It could be however, that May, Corbyn, and company are simply playing the game of politics. The Labour leader’s ‘reboot’ is a prime example of such game-playing. With ‘straight talking honest politics’ failing to enthuse more that 30% of voters – according to recent polls – Corbyn’s team have changed tack, creating a media persona so contrived it would make Blair blush. The PM is openly treating Brexit negotiations as a game; one in which she ‘keeps her cards close to her chest’. Indeed, many MPs like to pretend they’re in House of Cards rather than the House of Commons – Michael Gove’s political assassination of Boris Johnson being a prime example. The fact is however, as Gove’s subsequent failed leadership bid showed, that most of our politicians are either too incompetent or unable to adapt to make a success of such games. Whatever the reason though, our current crises show that politicians across the spectrum are failing those they represent.