What’s it like in the Westminster bubble right now? Probably much the same as it is in the world outside. It’s a time of hiatus, uncertainty, anxiety, and deep gloom.
But that’s the new normal. Today it feels like there’s another addition to that dismal lexicon – fear.
I’m writing this within minutes of the announcement being made about the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch as Britain’s ambassador to the United States of America. On one level, Darroch’s resignation comes as no surprise. The absurd and undiplomatic response of the elderly baby in the White House to the leak of confidential British Foreign Office cables might be said to have made the diplomat’s position impossible. Equally. one might suggest that Trump has a short attention span, and the ability to do a U turn in response to a little flattery (see how that other Kim, the “little rocket man”, became his best buddy). We could all just hang in there and wait for the President’s mood to shift.
For Darroch’s resignation owes less to the President’s fit of the vapours, and more to do with the current state of British politics. Darroch is said to have decided to resign after watching the ITV Tory leadership “debate” last night. The willingness, indeed eagerness, of the front runner to throw a Civil Servant under one of his primitively painted buses was the trigger for the Ambassador’s action.
When the history is written about this sordid period in British politics, the ‘Darroch Affair’ may well be a key chapter, rather than a footnote in the story of Brexit.
Let me stress this point. I am a woman in a city beyond London. I don’t rub shoulders with lobby journalists at the gym. On the rare occasion that I find myself at a dinner party, there is rarely a Cabinet minister, a top columnist, or a television pundit around the table. I am an ordinary voter, out of the loop, and piecing things together for myself.
The picture I’ve assembled from my consumption of political media is deeply troubling. I smell fear.
Not the fear of Brexit, whether it be by cliff edge leap, or life raft on a gentle sea. However horrible, if Brexit happens, one way or another we can survive it, poorer, sadder, more fractious, but mostly still standing. This is a bigger fear.
A number of things have been coming together to make this potent ‘fear soup’. The normalisation of talk about the prorogation of Parliament. Former Prime Ministers making desperate interventions to try to maintain democratic conventions, using the courts if necessary. Watching Richard Tice on television actively trying to give the impression that the Brexit Party (Ltd) had a hand in the leak of diplomatic communications, without actually saying any incriminating words. Alan Rusbridger tweeting a “web of intrigue” from today’s Times showing all the links and interconnections between ‘journalist’ and hack for hire, Isabel Oakshott, and ‘people of interest’, British and foreign, in the advancement of the Brexit project. The look on Laura Kuenssberg’s face when she tried to question Alan Duncan about whether the key convention on having a politically impartial civil service was now being junked, and Duncan’s response, which strongly suggested that the whole game might be up for the British constitution within the next two weeks.
All these things, and much more, suggest something stronger than alarm, and almost a resignation that the ongoing slo-mo coup is past the point of resistance.
There doesn’t have to be a conspiracy for things to go this badly wrong. A confluence of weakened institutions, malign forces, chancers, the greedy and opportunistic, and myopic and inadequate politicians, in the context of a bored, disengaged electorate is probably enough for the perfect storm.
The question is: how bad can it get?