Journalists like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson for a simple reason: they are easy to write about. Big characters, glaring moral inadequacies and cartoonish appearances provide lighter material than policy documents and budget proposals. And analysing the world through the lens of major personalities – the great men of history – is ancient tradition.
Sadly it is not a luxury currently available to the world. Trump haunts the sidelines of American politics and for now he is no longer centre-stage. Johnson has remarkable staying power – like Japanese knotweed he will never be truly thwarted. But he too is a sideshow to the main event. Normal people are back in fashion – as Rishi Sunak and Joe Biden take up the helm of the Anglosphere. The question is: can they turn back the tide on the damage wrought by their predecessors?
In London this return to credible politics can be felt in the air. Is it relief? Or boredom?
In the seven years after the Brexit referendum Westminster seemingly doused itself in flames. It has seen five prime ministers and two general elections in that time. Not to mention the countless no confidence letters, the internecine warfare and the drip feed of scandal. The Conservatives may take some time to shake the legacy of this era of chaos but Sunak has – in a short space of time – prevented the party from total immolation.
It might be too early to call the Windsor Framework a triumph of statecraft. But it immediately bettered London’s relationship with Dublin, Washington and the European Union. It may even have permanently closed the door on the highest dramas of Brexit. It demonstrated a renewed commitment to political competency, a quality long absent in the halls of Westminster. And the recklessness of Liz Truss’s economic vision has been further emphasised by the comparable sanity of Sunak and Jeremy Hunt’s March budget.
[ DUP has entangled itself in a legalistic critique of Windsor Framework ]
If Sunak has managed to make the Conservative Party boring again then he has met his match in Labour leader Keir Starmer. There are plenty of ways you might describe him: serious, honest, professional. “Exhilarating” wouldn’t be one of them. But like Sunak, Starmer rescued his party from the brink. Jeremy Corbyn excited a cohort of young voters in 2017, but by 2019 it was clear the project had failed. All of a sudden the personality cult of the flat-cap socialist didn’t seem so appealing: whether that is thanks to the anti-Semitism crisis that gripped his party or the cowardly fence-sitting on Brexit.
Whatever bug that infected British politics over the past few years might finally be on its way out. But it is no wonder that during those years Ireland cleaved ever closer to the European Union. Where else, exactly, was Ireland to turn in 2018?
To Theresa May? A prime minister in name only, constantly held to ransom by the DUP and the European Research Group? Keeping the diplomatic channels open between Westminster and Dublin must have felt futile at this time – whatever plan or strategy to move the problem forward was certain to be defeated by a throng of enthusiastic Brexit rebels in parliament, uninterested in any vision other than their own.
Perhaps Ireland could have looked to Corbyn instead? Though only leader of the opposition, might that have been the route for Ireland to have its interests heard in Westminster? Perhaps. But just like the Conservatives in 2018, Corbyn was no real friend to Dublin. Euroscepticism runs as deep in Corbyn as any member of the ERG. Labour under his leadership – a style of politics forged in the 1970s – was never equipped to advocate for the sensibilities of modern Ireland.
It is remarkable then how much can change in just a few short years. Now instead of Trump Ireland has an ally in Biden, a man genuinely sensitive to the country’s peculiarities and actively interested in its flourishing.
The ERG Zombie government is gone, and so is the reckless chicanery of Johnson’s. Now Sunak has proven he’s leading an operation that wants to make Brexit work rather than letting its wounds fester.
[ Windsor Framework is as good as it gets for unionism. Will it be enough? ]
And Keir Starmer may lack flavour but he is credible – he isn’t Jeremy Corbyn and he might be running the country in just a few years’ time.
This return to boring politics is a great moment for Ireland. Now that Britain has come back down to earth, gently escorted by the managerial Sunak, diplomatic relations between London and Dublin are at the best they have been in several years. If the Conservatives lose the next election – it is possible – already Ireland has a better neighbour in Starmer than it would ever have had in Corbyn. An America run by Biden is always going to be diplomatically preferable than one led by Trump.
But the weirdness of the past seven years cannot be undone. Ireland has been pivoting its interests towards the EU for a long time now, certainly before 2016. But the combined inadequacy of American and British politics have hastened this process of psychological distancing. Sunak, Starmer and Biden might be competent, but they cannot alter history.