The political class has lost its marbles. This goes beyond Priti Patel failing to follow basic ministerial code or Boris Johnson’s blabbermouth making life a hell of a lot harder for an imprisoned Brit in Iran. There is also the increasingly deranged ‘Pestminster’ scandal. And their ongoing emotional meltdown over Brexit. And the Russian conspiracy theories being spouted by Ben Bradshaw and others — the David Ickes of polite society — which imply Putin is puppeteering the Western masses’ brains. It increasingly feels like we’re being governed not merely by fools and incompetents, but by nutters.
Incompetence is the go-to explanation for the political class’s current malaise. And it’s a tempting one. How else do we explain Patel’s fantastically foolish decision to meet with Israeli officials while on a jaunt to the Holy Land without first clearing it with Downing Street? (Or maybe she did? No one knows. It all gets murkier by the minute.) And how do we explain BoJo’s criminally dumb remarks about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman in jail in Tehran on jumped-up charges of espionage? Johnson said she was in Iran to train journalists, which is untrue, and which the Iranian regime has leapt upon to justify its cruel incarceration of her. If a foreign secretary fails in his basic job description of protecting Brits abroad, then he should consider his position. Boris’s buffoonery just went from loveable to lethal.
But there is something else in the air, too. Something more than dimwittery or mistake-making, which have been par for the course in politics for as long as politics has existed. Patel’s and Boris’s idiocies take place at a time when politics feels more amateur and swirling and even unhinged than it has for years, or decades. So part of the reason Theresa May was unsure what to do about Patel and Boris is because she has been bound up in the skewiff scandal of ‘Pestminster’, in which everything from a briefly touched knee to a saucy text message has been madly talked about as sexual harassment, or even abuse, and has led to ministers and MPs falling on their swords. The finger-pointing hacks and politicos screaming ‘PREDATOR!’ over such innocent fare as a forward text message have no idea how nuts they sound to ordinary people.
And May is hamstrung by the Brexit fallout, too. Brexit Derangement Syndrome, a simultaneously tragic and hilarious affliction of our political and media elites, is another sign of these strange, dislocated times. For 18 months now, politicos and observers have been descending into the mire of Brexitphobia, wailing ‘FASCISTS!’ as they fall, jabbering crazily about the return of Hitlerism and the end of both peace and prosperity as we have known it. Again, they have no idea — they can’t have, surely — how demented they sound to people outside the Westminster bubble, many of whom voted for Brexit, and many of whom know Brexit is eminently achievable, and possibly even wonderful.
And the Priti/ Boris messes coincide with a renewed effort to uncover the malicious influence of evil Russians in British politics. ‘Is Vladimir Putin meddling in British politics?’, a Times headline asked this week. Talk about ‘Questions To Which The Answer Is No’. The Times piece was a report about a new MP’s inquiry into whether those pesky, nasty Ruskies pumped so much fake news into Blighty during the EU referendum that they coaxed us silly plebs to vote Leave against our own better judgement. We need a ‘full government investigation’ of ‘all [Russian] subversion’ said Brexit’s Joseph McCarthy, Ben Bradshaw. He echoes the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, who says we must find out if ‘Putin’s agents’ meddled in the referendum. Guys, get over it. You lost. This longest hissy fit in history must end. Moscow didn’t mind-screw the British public — we decided for ourselves that the EU is a corrupt, undemocratic, illiberal institution! Your conspiracy theories are embarrassing, for you, and patronising, to us.
Mash this all together — the incompetence of ministers, the demented finger-pointing of ‘Pestminster’, the sacking of MPs for knee-touching, the grating, weepy sore loserism of politicos who hate Brexit, the conspiratorial mush of the idea that Russia is secretly commanding Brits’ minds and Britain’s future — and you have a snapshot of a political elite in freefall. They’ve lost it. All of them. Not just the Tories but also the gleeful Corbynistas, who are as up to their neck in the sex-pest panic and Brexit Derangement Syndrome as any of the folks in Cabinet. They all seem to be abandoning reason and normalcy and even democracy for the temptations of conspiracy theorising and witch hunts. I can’t remember a time in my life when the political class has felt so disconnected not only from everyday people, but from sense itself.