In Politics, There’s a Time for Good Manners. This Isn’t It.
They say a week is a long time in politics; this week has felt particularly long. If it wasn’t bad enough that we have a new Health Secretary in the middle of a pandemic; the British public have had to endure the collective trauma of seeing the man who told us we shouldn’t be hugging our parents, grasping at his colleague’s buttocks as though there were no tomorrow. Add to the mix a Prime Minister who, like an embattled police chief in a film noir, dramatically declared the case to be “closed”, before reversing his position less than twenty-four hours later.
This is truly erratic behaviour. Johnson is supposedly adept at reading the mood of the public; what does it say about his political judgement that he was convinced Matt Hancock could continue to lead the response to the pandemic after we’d all borne witness to his high stakes game of tonsil tennis?
And yet, I detect no feeling that the Government’s bad week has been the Opposition’s good week. In fact, I sense that Matt Hancock’s misbehaviour is giving rise to some of the classic myths of British politics that we all know and love — ‘they’re all at it’, ‘they’re in it for themselves’ — ‘they’ being those bloody awful politicians. This is, of course, the laziest possible interpretation of this story, but it’s a popular one.
The Opposition has a responsibility to challenge this kind of anti-politics narrative, for selfish reasons as well as conscientious ones; political apathy helps the Tories at the ballot box. Public opinion isn’t a carefully calibrated set of scales where the government being weighed down by scandal automatically has an equal reaction, sending the opposition shooting up into the stratosphere.
Perhaps Starmer's office is distracted by ongoing changes to the ‘backroom’ of their operation, but I believe there’s another pattern forming. There are issues where Labour seem to be adopting a position of constructive silence. Brexit and other so-called ‘cultural’ issues are one area that’s been widely reported on, but Labour also seem reluctant to commit to a line on ethical issues; the exception to this being the week where everyone on the shadow frontbench banged on about ‘sleaze’, which even Tony Blair said he regretted doing in his day and compared to ‘diving to win a penalty’.
The Conservatives are winners in part because they are not afraid to criticise individuals, to popularise a ludicrous version of their opponents in the public eye. Indulge me for a moment and allow me to imagine some kind of parallel universe: Jonathan Ashworth, Labour health secretary, is pictured in The Sun snogging his colleague whilst telling everybody to keep two meters away from the nearest sign of life. Would there be any hint of mercy shown by Leader of the Opposition Boris Johnson? Or would he in fact call Prime Minister Keir Starmer — who flip-flopped on whether or not the Health Secretary should go and eventually allowed him to resign — a lily-livered, yellow-bellied weakling as quickly and as many times as possible.
Starmer’s criticism of Hancock and Johnson was full of caveats: “well actually Hancock should have been sacked for these four other things that the public doesn’t care about, rather than this one thing which has really cut through”. Starmer has clung onto one very particular aspect of the Corbyn legacy: being too bloody nice. Corbyn didn’t do ‘personal’ attacks (although he certainly received them) and look where that got him.
The ethical standards of this government are one of their weakest points; the events of this week have shown (in a rather extreme example) that the public do care about the conduct of ministers. Those who are interested in replacing this government at the next election cannot let this go, particularly as Johnson made a crucial error and stood up for Hancock, effectively telling the public that he condoned his behaviour. The opposition can’t be afraid to make the case that the misbehaviour of Hancock and others is a failing of the Conservative party and it’s leader, rather than a fundamental flaw of Westminster. This may well require a bit of high-horsery.