When reflecting on the last 12 months in British politics, I found myself casting my mind back to a simpler time. A time when David Cameron was forced to make a televised statement outside his house – while wearing a fleece – about smoking weed in high school. When calling a bigoted woman a “bigoted woman” was the biggest political scandal, and when eating a bacon sandwich in an odd manner ruined careers.
Now the innocence of the pre-Brexit era is long gone. Westminster’s largest parties have different leaders who, for the first time since 2013, have navigated a calendar year in politics without a referendum or a general election. What a relief… Or so we thought.
Depending on the news of the day and, of course, who you ask, Britain is either teetering towards a second referendum or a no-deal Brexit. The only indisputable truth is that, two years on from 2016’s EU referendum, people are more divided than ever. Westminster has somehow managed to become even more polarised than the electorate, which is quite an achievement. Though, rather then being inevitable, the bacterial divisiveness of our politics has been allowed to fester and multiply in a leadership vacuum.
This year we have seen both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn lacking in political and moral authority. With Number 10 occupied by a Remainer pretending to be a Leaver, opposed at the dispatch box by a notorious Eurosceptic who “campaigned” for Remain, it’s difficult to trust either of them.
While balancing their personal beliefs with political realities, May and Corbyn have so far failed to reconcile party members’ and MPs’ demands with the wider electorate. Both have also been engulfed in scandals that would have been fatal to their careers just a few years ago.
Amber Rudd might have taken the blame, but May’s notoriously anti-immigrant fingerprints were all over the Windrush scandal. May’s “hostile environment” policies were responsible for black British citizens being illegally deported in a scandal which, both heartbreaking and maddening, is one of the most shameful in living memory.
When May wasn’t running through wheat fields or rolling out the red carpet for Donald Trump, she was hiring new ministers as her cabinet disappeared quicker than Priti Patel on a “family holiday”. After creating the cabinet position of Brexit secretary, both appointees quit within months of each other over deals they were allegedly instrumental in negotiating – an appropriate summary of the prime minister’s year.
After becoming the first government in history to be found in contempt of parliament for failing to publish key Brexit legal advice, May postponed the vote on her EU withdrawal bill, knowing she would be defeated. As her own MPs turned on her, May restored the Tory whip to two MPs facing serious sexual harassment accusations – the most damning moment of her premiership so far.
May’s slow implosion, after years of Tory infighting over Europe, wouldn’t be so disastrous if Her Majesty’s opposition weren’t in a similarly tangled mess. On Brexit, it is not yet clear whether Corbyn’s inability to follow or articulate Labour party policy is deliberate or accidental idiocy, but either way it is terrible for the country.
As for scandals, Corbyn never misses an opportunity to remind everyone how untrustworthy he is. His denial that he was “involved” in laying a wreath for terrorists was almost as disturbing as his cult-like followers’ inability to believe photographic evidence that suggested otherwise. Then there was his shockingly inadequate response to alleged antisemitism within the Labour party, which was followed by the emergence of a 2013 clip which showed him making “jokes” that many perceived to be antisemitic. Even Labour MPs described the video as “sickening” and “inexcusable”.
According to YouGov polls tracking who the public think will make the best prime minister, Corbyn has been outperformed by “not sure” for the entirety of 2018. With an approval rating of minus 19 per cent, it seems that retiring that ghastly tan suit might be the only positive he can take from this year.
Since the 2017 general election, the Conservatives and Labour have been neck-and-neck in the polls. Though, for most voters, the choice between them is a matter of deciding who is the lesser of two evils. If both May and Corbyn decided to stand down now, at the same time, I would estimate that about 80 per cent of the electorate would either breathe a great sigh or relief or react with jubilation. At perhaps the most pivotal moment in our nation’s modern history, having two leaders who are this widely disliked is an extremely worrying place for our democracy to be.
Brexit was seen by many as a revolt against “politics are usual”. Yet the new, post-referendum normal has turned out to be a never-ending tug-of-war of inadequacy, incompetence and deliberate deception. If Britain wants smarter politicians, we’re going to have to start being smarter voters. But with politics outside Scotland dominated by two parties with leaders who aren’t even competent enough to organise a televised debate, let alone negotiate Brexit, where else are voters to turn?
As a new year approaches, my mind drifts to Brazil, America and Italy, where we have already seen what can happen when voters feel like they’re out of options. Unless a seismic shift breaks the endlessly bleak deadlock that is May vs Corbyn, I fear things will get much worse before they get better.
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