Does the prime minister’s decision to call a snap general election damage trust in politicians? No, but the actions of those MPs fighting a desperate rearguard attempt to overturn the referendum result and thwart Brexit certainly will
The received wisdom among the punditocracy seems to be that Theresa May has seriously damaged the public trust in her own leadership, and in the character of politicians in general, by reversing her earlier statements and calling a snap general election for 8 June.
The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman seems to be taking particular offence, singling out this decision as being emblematic of why voters distrust politicians and hold them in such low regard.
This might be true on the margins, but I would argue that most people do not devote a huge amount of time to storing up resentments over acts of political skulduggery and gamesmanship which impact the careers of individual MPs far more than the country as a whole.
The real reason for flatlining public trust in politicians is the fact that successive ministers, parties and MPs have continually promised radical change and sweeping improvement while offering nearly identical variants of the same centrist political consensus. People distrust politicians because for years they have claimed to hear public concern and anxiety about numerous issues – immigration levels, EU membership, state involvement in the economy, foreign policy – and then gone and done exactly what they wanted to do in the first place, without taking those concerns into account. People get angry about the real, material policy betrayals, not the cosmetic political ones.
Promising to cut net inward migration to the “tens of thousands” (wise or not) and then missing the mark by a factor of ten is liable to make people distrust politicians because it is a real and tangible failure. Offering a “cast iron guarantee” to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and then performing a complete U-turn is liable to make people distrust politicians because it actively takes away something that was promised to the electorate. By contrast, electoral shenanigans barely register on the same scale.
And yet the narrative that Theresa May has supposedly mortally wounded voter trust in politicians continues to grow, like a massive snowball picking up debris as it rolls down a hill:
Meanwhile, Isabel Hardman writes:
Today Theresa May broke her own promise about there being no early general election [..] She had been so adamant that even those who thought they knew her best after years of working together in Opposition and government had taken her at her world and were insisting until recently that May believed in keeping her promises and that there would be no snap general election.
[..] Oddly one of her complaints was that Westminster wasn’t ‘coming together’ after the referendum, as though it would be better if everyone agreed on everything she suggested, because consensus is such a good way of refining legislation so that it leaves Westminster in good shape.
This is great snark, but poor analysis. While unthinking, automatic consensus are never good, neither is blind, unreasonable opposition. The task before MPs is to help ensure that the UK achieves the best possible form of Brexit, given the clear instruction given by the British people to engineer Britain’s exit from the European Union. Yet there are many MPs – the entire SNP and LibDem caucuses, for instance – who have zero interest in abiding by the referendum result, and in fact have openly declared their intention to scupper the result and prevent Brexit by any means necessary and via any opportunity which can be grasped.
This is not reasonable. This is not respecting the will of the people as expressed through a majority of voters in a referendum whose legitimacy none of them complained about when they expected to win. In fact, this is deeply unreasonable.
To use a comparison from America, the behaviour of many Remainer MPs can be likened to Republican Senator Mitch McConnell declaring that the GOP’s main objective was to make Barack Obama a one-term president – not to help ensure American success despite their ideological differences, but to blindly and angrily oppose everything just for the sake of it in order to weaken the president. A temper tantrum rather than constructive opposition.
One can also compare the attitude of die-hard Remainers to the US Republican Party strategy when ObamaCare was being debated in Congress. Here was a president with a mandate and a congressional supermajority, but rather than engaging with the legislative process to inject conservative thinking and ideas into the eventual bill, the Republicans again chose blind opposition – including opposing policy ideas (such as the individual mandate) which were once approved by conservative think tanks and enacted by conservative governors. The result was a flawed attempt at American healthcare reform, which fell far short of achieving universal coverage or access and giving almost none of the parties what they really wanted (either single-payer or a deregulated insurance market).
Remainer MPs have a chance now to engage with the Brexit process, to apply pressure to help achieve the best kind of Brexit – in this blog’s view, an interim Norway-style option which preserves maximal single market access and avoids having to draw up alternative trade, regulation and customs arrangements against the clock. But this already unlikely goal cannot be achieved so long as so many Remainer MPs openly salivate at the idea of blocking Brexit altogether and brazenly boast about their intention to blindly oppose everything that this “Evil Tory” government tries to do.
Theresa May was right to state that Westminster needs to “come together” – not in blind obedience to a Tory manifesto but in acknowledgement of a legitimate referendum outcome which must now be enacted. Under this umbrella of basic respect for democracy there exists a vast spectrum for disagreement and opposition of particular policies and ideas, as is right for a liberal democracy. But unless we observe common rules and accept certain undeniable facts then we cannot work together productively.
Presently, too many pro-EU Remainer politicians are choosing the path of blind opposition as opposed to constructive engagement. They refuse to live in the real-world universe where they lost the EU referendum and the Brexiteers won. Living in denial is certainly their right – but in doing so they have given Theresa May exactly the cover that she needed to call this early general election.
Actually, politicians are decent people, and all people can end up breaking promises. But the problem is that the voters have the same childlike sense of justice that doesn’t easily forget those broken promises (remember what happened to the Lib Dems in 2015 after their broken tuition fee pledge?)
Anyone who has worked with children who have been neglected in their early years knows that keeping promises is even more important, as each broken promise hurts terribly and reminds the child of the pain they felt when they were younger. Voters as a whole aren’t vulnerable in the same way, but they consistently show the same frustration with politicians when asked for their attitudes towards them in polls. And whatever they may say about their commitment to public service, but Theresa May and David Cameron have in recent years made it even harder for politicians as a group to gain the public’s trust.
This is a little condescending to voters, but there is some truth in it. I wouldn’t necessarily describe voter anger at broken material promises by politicians as being “childlike”. Rather, I think it represents that innate sense of fair play which is common to children and decent adults alike.
Promises should certainly be kept, but let us not pretend for another moment that all political promises are created equal. David Cameron standing down as an MP after first promising to stay on, and Theresa May holding a snap general election after promising not to do so – these acts simply do not offend the public trust as much as other, far more significant policy betrayals committed by all parties of government in recent decades.
Perhaps it is easy to lose perspective as an establishment journalist used to following every detail of the Westminster Game of Thrones, but out in the country actual tangible outcomes matter far more than the kind of palace intrigue which fascinates The Spectator.
But as even some Remainers (at least those outside of Parliament and the political elite) now realise, attempting to thwart the outcome of the EU referendum – either through procedural shenanigans or attempting to roll the dice with a second referendum, ignoring the fact that Article 50 has already been triggered – deeply offends that sense of fair play, and does so far more egregiously than Theresa May’s broken promise about not holding a general election until 2020.
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