Politics in Britain is again marching to strange rhythms. Officially, nothing much has been happening this month, because of an all-important period of national mourning. But in reality Whitehall has been busy, even frantic. The Treasury has been purged of its most senior civil servant and given a new, pro-growth mission. The latest emergency budget is being drawn up, thinly disguised as a “fiscal event”. And a new, potentially very risky government has been settling in. Yet another Conservative experiment on the country is being prepared, largely unscrutinised.
Much of our politics has had this simultaneously stuck and manic quality since at least the EU referendum. Brexit deadlocks and “cliff edges”, the pandemic, Tory leadership contests, the cost of living crisis, the invasion of Ukraine and now the Queen’s death – each has accelerated or paralysed politics, making a mockery of the once common idea that British democracy is about steady progress.
These seemingly never-ending shocks and disruptions have in some ways been very challenging for a Tory government that increasingly lacks capable people. As well as the administrative headaches, orthodoxies about the size of the state, levels of taxation and the party’s relationship with business have had to be reexamined, argued over and, at least temporarily, abandoned. Once promising Tory politicians such as Rishi Sunak have become casualties.
But in other less noticed ways, the chaotic rhythm of the past six years has helped the Tories. “Never allow a good crisis to go to waste,” President Barack Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel famously told the New York Times in 2008. “It’s an opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible.” For the Conservatives, applying this principle used to mean using periods of turmoil to rethink their policies and how the party presented itself to the public, such as during the turbulent 1970s before Margaret Thatcher took power. In unstable times, the self-styled party of order would offer new ways to make the crisis stop.
Yet, since Brexit, the Tories’ approach has changed. Often, they hide behind crises, and use them to play for time. For months, Conservative ministers and MPs argued that the situation in Ukraine meant the world was too dangerous for the party to change its leader, however unsuited to that position Boris Johnson became.
At other times, the Tories tried to use Ukraine and the pandemic in a different way: to give the government qualities it lacked. In broadcasts and press conferences, Johnson sought to affect a Churchillian steadfastness and gravitas, and an almost apolitical, father of the nation persona – opposite to the feckless, divisive person he is in reality. Crises also suit a modern Conservatism more comfortable with fiction than facts. When voters are frightened and looking for reassurance, big promises, fantasies and storytelling can resonate more, at least at first, than what a government is actually achieving.
And while a national crisis makes prime ministers more visible, especially to those crucial voters who don’t usually follow politics, it can also make them less accountable. Like Johnson, Liz Truss avoids scrutiny where possible. During her long leadership campaign she did not give a single in-depth broadcast interview until the voting had finished. As prime minister, thanks to the suspension of parliament after the Queen’s death, she may not start facing regular Commons examinations until mid-October – six weeks after taking over Downing Street.
For an unpolished new premier, who has so far given only short, rudimentary speeches while constantly looking down at her notes, this breathing space could be valuable. Meanwhile, the opposition parties will have fewer chances than usual to define and damage the government while it is still young and at its most vulnerable – or at its most threatening, if voters grant it a honeymoon.
For Keir Starmer, who likes to build a case in the Commons, the frequent absence from there of Tory prime ministers has been a problem ever since he became Labour leader. Britain’s almost permanent state of crisis has reduced interest in the opposition and its room for manoeuvre, forcing it to appear less “party political” and more “constructive”. When voters are worried about dying from Covid or not being able to heat their houses in the immediate future, a change of government at an election, which may be years away, can be mistaken for a luxury.
Big crises have a drama that can make politics look small. By contrast, when Tony Blair was such a successful opposition leader from 1994 to 1997, Britain was much calmer: voters and journalists could consider his offering without many distractions. They could also see with growing clarity that a long period of Tory rule had in many ways failed the country. The party’s record in office since 2010 is worse, but it has often been hard for voters to focus on that. The ongoing failure of Brexit, for example, rarely makes the news.
With the official period of mourning over, it’s possible political life will return to more normal patterns. But given that politics hasn’t been “normal” for at least six years, and given that so many of Britain’s most pressing issues remain unresolved, further turmoil feels more likely. I grew up politically during the 1990s, when our politics seemed to move in slow cycles and the country seemed much the same from one year to the next. That world feels so distant now, and the nervous systems of many journalists, politicians and voters have adjusted: they expect – perhaps even want – regular shocks.
If Labour does win the next election and somehow provides a stabilising government, expect some people to call it boring. But if we continue to lurch from one emergency to the next under Prime Minister Starmer, different rules will apply to those now. When the Tories are in power, times of crisis are often seen by the press and parliament as a reason to get behind the government. But when Labour is in power, crises are usually seen as a reason to get rid of it, as premiers from Jim Callaghan to Gordon Brown have discovered. Until Labour governments are able to – or allowed to – duck and weave through chaotic times as Tory ones do, Labour will remain stuck as the second party.