by Martin Odoni

It is a drawback often claimed of written exams that they demonstrate only how good the students are at doing exams, not how good they are at a particular subject.

A complaint that ‘rhymes’ with this could equally be levelled at the electoral processes of Western countries, especially General Elections; they demonstrate only how good candidates are at winning Elections, not how good any of them will be at governing a country.

Sadly, not all of us did, but those who did deserve a huge pat on the back for their endurance in the face of a Boris Johnson Government.

As we struggle to get used to writing “2021” instead of “2020” when noting the date, we can see that this weakness in the system has been increasingly and horribly exposed over the last three decades. Under Tony Blair, ‘New Labour’ – an empty brand name if ever there was one – became so focused on ‘looking the part’ for winning, they quite forgot that power is a means and not an end. Or at least, that when it becomes an end, the power-seeker’s purposes can only be selfish ones. So once they were in office, Blair’s Government quite unabashedly concerned themselves with continuing Thatcherism rather than with making radical changes to the way Britain functions.

Cameron lies as naturally as others breathe

David Cameron, when he finally dislodged the last Labour Government, partly achieved success by, yes, cynical and thorough deceit, exploiting the Global Financial Crisis to make it look like it was Labour’s fault. But he also achieved it by making himself appear as much like Tony Blair as possible. Portfolio-management and looking engaging as part of a kind of ‘beauty contest’ were the skills. Once he was Prime Minister, Cameron proved largely incompetent and foolish, and only by his relentless lying – aided by a mainstream media who almost never picked him up on it – was he able to see out a full term in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

The two problems with ‘Career Politicians’ is that they lose the power of imagination, and just getting into Government becomes an end, not a means to an end

Now of course we have the all-time nadir of Prime Ministers. Boris Johnson has hardly put a foot right since he at last reached 10 Downing Street in July 2019. His only purpose in being Prime Minister, on examination, just seems to be that he wants to be, and that he feels with his upper crust background that it is his natural right and place to be. A bit like so many of the worst monarchs of English and Scottish history (and there have been shockingly high numbers of bad ones in both countries); first-born Princes of the Realm brought up to be King would grow up much too used to no one daring to disagree with them, to nobody at all daring to blame them for anything, and to receiving the throne when their fathers died because it was simply their Divine Right. In a disturbingly similar manner, Johnson seems to think that it is simply his right to be Prime Minister because he went to Eton. Never mind that his school reports have become notorious for describing idleness, complacency and impunctual habits. Those basic personal inadequacies only underline how entitled he thinks he is.

Divine right of Old Etonians

Today, Britain may pride itself on having ended the Divine Right of Kings by means of Civil War, but it would seem that it has only replaced it with the Divine Right of Old Etonian Prime Ministers. How should we put an end to that, I wonder?

Of course, it would be quite wrong to suggest that Boris “BoJob” Johnson is a ‘manufactured politician’ in the sense that every member of Blair’s later Cabinets was essentially trying to be a clone of Blair. Johnson is manufactured in the sense that he has a public persona that is somewhat fake. His bumbling, laddish, unkempt crudeness may be quite opposite to the very straight-laced, heavily-regimented appearance of New Labour, and it is not altogether unreal, but it is played up and exaggerated e.g. he famously chooses to mess up his own hair deliberately before being interviewed. The reason he does things like this is that he finds it wins him favour with the sorts of people who, were they properly informed, would know better than to vote for the Conservative Party ever – many working class voters seem to take it as a strange form of self-validation. If a racist, sexist, homophobic, messy, gaffe-prone, bumbling fool can be Prime Minister, obviously it ain’t that bad to be like me, seems to be the rather depressing and self-underestimating reasoning. Johnson bears a passing, Anglocised resemblance to Homer Simpson. It seems that a lot of ordinary Britons compare themselves to Simpson too, probably subconsciously, and therefore are reassured when they see another of that ilk getting into Downing Street. They quite overlook, however, how that sort of clumsiness is a routine product of the upper classes, not of the working classes.

Recalling the knuckle-gnawing embarrassment in the late-1990s of William Hague wearing a baseball cap in order to attract voters, we can see it is a familiar pattern, with both sides of the House of Commons trying to be their own opposites. Labour politicians are always trying to look like the archetype of Conservatives, while Conservatives try to look like (what they think of as) ordinary people. But what the Hagues, the Blairites and the BoJobs of this world all have in common is that they are not being honest with the people they want to vote for them. Hague does not really want to wander around in a cap. When he wore it, he was not being himself, and he was not being honest in pretending that he was.

And because they get away with it at Elections, British politicians think they are allowed to lie to the people the rest of the time too.

Coronavirus response is about control-of-message, not control-of-pandemic

Hence why the Conservatives have done such an appalling job of fighting the Coronavirus. They are not really interested in fighting it for the sake of saving lives. Insofar as they care at all, it is in the interest of mitigating the pandemic’s impact on the function of the British economy. They keep compromising on the health of people in order to keep industry ticking over.

This is the story behind the childish see-saw between Johnson and Keir Starmer over whether to close schools in the battle to contain the spread of the virus. Johnson and his Cabinet know very well that if the schools close, a lot of parents are going to have to take time off work to look after the children. The businesses they work for are therefore bound to see a major slump in productivity. And a lot of those businesses are run by people who donate regularly to the Conservative Party.

Some of them also donate to Keir Starmer and his allies on the right wing of the Labour Party. Therefore, Starmer is also quite reluctant to call for the renewed full lockdown that anyone with more than half-an-eye can see is so plainly necessary.

But neither side can admit that they value the money of their party donors more highly than the lives of their fellow Britons. So what do they do? What Elections have proven them best at, of course. They just lie and lie, boasting about tiny bits of progress that barely count as ‘achievements,’ banging their chests with ‘national pride’ at the country’s so-called ‘victories’ against a pandemic that should never have been allowed to gain such an entrenched foothold in the UK in the first place. They applaud National Health Service workers one month, putting their lives at risk with inadequate personal protective equipment as they struggle desperately to keep virus victims alive. Then a few months later, they refuse to give NHS workers an adequate pay rise. They roll out a vaccination program, then withhold half of it for twelve weeks, instead of giving the second dose within 21 days. Almost every announcement relating to the struggle against the disease is spun in one way or another.

The Government under Johnson has politicised the virus, while the Opposition under Starmer has politicised the criticism of the Government. Controlling the public message about CoVid-19 has become far more important than controlling CoVid-19, and that is partly achieved by acting like the parties are almost in ‘Election mode’ still.

What makes a winning Election campaign is not what makes winning Government

The real problem is that what wins Elections does not have much to do with what generates good Government. It is sometimes said that “Politics happens in Parliament, but Government happens in Whitehall.” And it is true. What gets a politician into the Palace of Westminster is not guaranteed to allow them any effect at all on the way the country is governed, not least because the great majority of Members of Parliament do not get into the Cabinet, and therefore never take up any Ministry or Department in the Palace of Whitehall.

And what wins Elections, a lot of the time, boils down to being a good ‘cheerleader’. Johnson, it must be conceded, is very good at that. It is not a great skill, and requires little intelligence, but even so, it must be acknowledged that Johnson is one of the best cheerleaders in the House of Commons. He clearly wants to lead in the same way that Winston Churchill led the country during World War II. Hence Johnson’s silly, inappropriate, battle-crying rhetoric when talking about fighting the pandemic; he means ‘fighting’ it literally, as though every time the new vaccine has been adminstered, a bomb has been successfully dropped on ‘CoVid-19 Headquarters‘ (wherever that is). But this cheerleading quality hints at the ugliest aspects of Johnson’s nature. His love of fighting talk in part stems from a barely-hidden love of violence, leading to the disturbing and bullying impulses to which he is prone.

What impulses? his supporters ask indignantly. Well…

That so many Britons over the last year have quite genuinely been sighing with relief over the fall of Jeremy Corbyn at the 2019 General Election says something truly disturbing about the current mental and ethical state of this country.

But people forgive Johnson these things because they somehow think a man, who has never had to do a day’s real work in his life, who was born into wealth and privilege, who got a massive headstart up the greasy pole by virtue of the ultra-aristocratic school he went to, and who has seldom suffered any serious repercussions for his history of pathological lying, is somehow “one-of-the-people.” Just because he is clumsy, crass and has messy hair.

But these ‘qualities,’ the few good ones and the wide variety of bad ones, are of little use in Whitehall, where civil servants have procedures to adhere to, and where chanting and sounding patriotic have little positive effect. Many civil servants will even roll their eyes at it. What brings many in the public to support Johnson is precisely what may alienate him from the Civil Service.

Johnson opposed Brexit just days before he supported it

Okay, some support Johnson because he made it his one and only priority as Prime Minister to deliver Brexit. That is just enough of a jingoistic crusade (among right wingers; Lexiteers support Leave for more intelligent reasons than their chest-banging counterparts on the right) for Johnson to be able to pretend to himself that he is leading the country against ‘evil foreigners,’ and therefore live out his Churchill fantasies in a very truncated way.

But even that pro-Brexit stance is every bit as much of a lie, as Johnson famously hedged his bets before the Referendum in 2016, writing two mutually-exclusive articles for the Telegraph about leaving the European Union, one arguing for Brexit, one arguing for Remain. Despite his implausible claims that he wrote the two articles as a method of weighing up the pros and cons in his own mind, it is very clear that he was covering his own back; hence why he did not decide until very late in the day which article to submit for publication. Also, it is obvious from what he wrote that he knew the dangers of a badly-organised and poorly-planned departure from the EU, and decided to hide them from the pro-Leave article that was eventually published.

With the above in mind, if you truly believe that Johnson is ‘just like’ you, what the hell does that say about you as a person?

Starmer has taken Labour back to the bad old days of Blairite ‘Electionism’

As for Starmer, his own behaviour has shown that he would handle the pandemic little differently to the way Johnson has. Any strategy that is not politically convenient will not be tolerated, even if it would objectively be better for the public. Starmer is just as obsessed with ‘optics’ as the Tories, and he is focused purely on winning the next General Election – again, for its own sake. He offers no details on what he might do were he to get into power, and that is all the sign you need that he has few ideas. He just wants to win the Election because “that’s what the Labour Party is there to do.” He is even using the pandemic to score Electioneering points, rather than force a change of strategy that will save more lives.

Now sure, winning Elections is important. Without doing so you will never be able to pursue the policies you believe in. But if you have to sacrifice everything that is right in order to win one – and I do not accept that you do – why bother? Why not just let your opponents win and let them carry on, if, when you get into office, you will just keep doing what they were doing anyway? Win Elections, yes. But win Elections at any cost?

Those who would win Elections at any cost have been seduced by the unashamed love of power. Power should be a tool, never an aim.

And surely the Labour Party is not there only to win Elections? Surely the Labour Party was set up in the first place to govern? Surely it was set up to take the country in a direction that makes it a fairer place for ordinary working people?

But as I say, the party has become so obsessed with what (it thinks) will win Elections, it has stopped thinking about what it will do should it actually win, and even stopped thinking about how capable it is of governing well. This is completely wrong. It means Starmer’s blind lust for power makes him no more suitable as Prime Minister than Johnson’s assumption of ‘Etonian Divine Right’ makes him.

The party machine is what deals with winning Elections, and the Party Chairman – not the Party Leader – is the guy in charge of the Election mechanism. The Parliamentary Party, while it of course has a big role to play when Elections come around, between times should be more concerned with governing, or with holding a rival governing party to account, instead. But the current mob in control of the Labour Party have nothing in particular they want to do should they get into Government, so they almost disregard it. They spend more time attacking the left of their own party than they spend condemning the worst Government in living memory. They feel that not thinking beyond the next Election is a price worth paying – a price they should pay even – for winning the Election.

This is what the UK has been reduced to. It is a country where politics not only has little to do with Government, but where politics is actually replacing Government.