Compare Emmanuel Macron with Theresa May, David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn. What’s the difference? I would say that President-elect Macron, unlike the three British politicians, has consistently lived up to the level of events since he formed his own political party, En Marche, a year ago. He has scaled up his actions to meet a daunting challenge, the decline of France as he sees it.
If she read this, Theresa May would rebuke me and say, “Goodness me, in calling an early election to prepare for the Brexit negotiations, also a daunting challenge, aren’t I doing just that?” Well, yes and no. Living up to the level of events implies that, when faced with a great task, every action, however small, should contribute to the resolution.
What do we see when we examine the 2016 referendum and the 2017 election thus far? The horror show that was the referendum campaign is difficult to forget, but let’s remind ourselves. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his Remain colleagues first attempted to fix the result in advance by using a form of words for the referendum question which would invite a “yes” response. The Electoral Commission had to intervene and substitute a much fairer question. Then, eight days before the vote, George Osborne, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, had another go. He attempted to frighten people by announcing a “punishment” budget.
Meanwhile both sides were repeatedly careless with the truth. In some cases they actively tried to mislead. Such time as there was to prepare for the referendum campaign was not used. A positive case for the European Union should have been made as a counter-balance to Euroscepticism. But, obtusely, Cameron used the Conservative election manifesto to rubbish the EU. And then, after this, you ask people to back the case to remain.
It was the same with the Leave side. Its campaign revealed a similar, catastrophic lack of preparation. In a Spectator blog posted after the battle was over, Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s campaign director observed that “despite many years to prepare, the Eurosceptic community had built remarkably little to prepare for the battle. On the ground were many small ineffective and often warring little groups and essentially no serious machinery.” Nor was the Leave team ever able to say what Out would look like. It was all tactics and no strategy.
At this point the entire Labour high command went missing. In his excellent account of the referendum campaign, All Out War, Tim Shipman writes that the real views of Jeremy Corbyn, the party leader, on the EU “remained a mystery”.
There was one even more shocking aspect of the referendum campaign. If it was accepted, as many have said, that the issue was the most significant for the country’s future since the decision to continue the war against Hitler after the fall of France in 1940, then you would imagine that Cameron would have let nothing prevent him from leading the remain campaign to victory. But there was a price for winning that Cameron was not prepared to pay. He would not countenance anything that further damaged the unity of the Conservative Party.
Shipman’s conclusion is that “in their prosecution of the referendum, Tory high command placed the preservation of some semblance of Conservative Party unity after polling day ahead of doing everything possible to win the vote.”
It wasn’t as if Cameron, Boris Johnson, Corbyn and their colleagues didn’t understand that the future of their country was at stake. They did. And they campaigned energetically enough. But what we saw in operation was the low opinion of ordinary people held by politicians. They think that if you slide a leading question onto the ballot paper, voters won’t notice. Scare them with tax increases, and the poor dears will come to heel. Tell them lies because they won’t see through them.
It scarcely needs saying that displaying contempt for voters is the polar opposite of rising to the level of events. But that is what May and Corbyn have continued to do in their different ways in the 2017 election campaign.
Entry to May’s meetings is by invitation only, so there is no risk of exposing her to an embarrassing question. Indeed her meetings are not even announced beforehand and are conducted in such secrecy that people living close by are often unaware that such an event has taken place.
To the Tory strategists, that doesn’t matter one bit. The TV cameras are there, posters are prominently displayed, and the unvarying sound bites are deployed again, and again, and again.
Corbyn, however, has a quite different way of letting voters know that he despises them. For he has already said that if Labour loses many seats, as is currently forecast to happen, then unlike his predecessors in such circumstances, he would not resign – never mind that Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown, William Hague and Michael Howard all did so in similar circumstances. No, in Corbyn politics you do not pay a price for failure.
So while the country faces the risks of a calamitous Brexit, the party leaders carry on with their old low-grade routines. The one subjects us to relentless sound bites and no dialogue; the other isn’t even terribly interested in the election result for he is determined to carry on as leader whatever happens.
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