A hearty good riddance to a year of political paralysis

Looking back on a year of chaos and confusion at the heart of government.

2019 started with a hung parliament at Westminster mired in the chaos and confusion of a Brexit impasse and it ended with a triumph for a new Prime Minister well placed to deliver on his mantra of ‘Get Brexit done’.

In the fullness of time, when issues of the here and now are analysed through the longer lens of history, 2019 will be recorded as an unedifying time of poison and intolerance in the body politic. It was a time when parliament and people seemed as one.

I will remember it as a time when the mother of parliaments resembled a bad tribute act for the government of a banana republic. History’s judgement is likely to be unforgiving on the dramatis personae, although the conclusions on the merits or otherwise of Brexit will crystallise in the immediate years to come.

This was the year when Theresa May tried to dodge scrutiny by delaying any meaningful vote on her Brexit deal. It provoked an already temperamental Commons into a repeated paroxysm of parliamentary howling as remain MPs tried to control the government and leave-supporting members cried treachery.

She became increasingly marginalised before she too went the way of her deal. Down and eventually out, a brutal coup de grace was delivered by her own side as she paid the price for her aloofness. In the end the only thing she could rely on was an appeal to that most fickle of traits in any politician: loyalty.

The term ‘national interest’ became so abused it was beyond parody. The government strategy was rooted in apparatchik politics but so too the strategy of the opposition and the Speaker, John Bercow.

The votes were called and they were lost. The atmosphere became toxic and MPs fulminated in front of any camera position on College Green. The 24-hour news channels became a platform for permarage.

And then a proroguing of parliament that never was. New Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the product of vaulting ambition and the sweet smile of fate, sent Jacob Rees-Mogg north to tidy up the niceties of prorogation.

“Perfectly legal,” he loftily intoned at Aberdeen Airport. The Supreme Court disagreed in a unanimous judgement which hinted at prime ministerial mendacity.

In the old days when rules seemed to count for something, this could have finished a career – but this was a year when only the unpredictable became predictable.

Mr Johnson was kicked from pillar to post but with another ruffle of his locks and a heightened theatricality as pantomime season approached, he took it all on the chin, despite the fact the kicks were aimed somewhat lower down the anatomy.

Turkey-in-chief Jeremy Corbyn voted for a Christmas election despite not a shred of credible evidence that Labour could win. In fact there was quite a lot of evidence to suggest he would lose big.

The Labour leader had poll ratings plumbing new levels of unpopularity, all buttressed by an unforgiving and, at times, vicious right-wing press.

Criticism of his lack of leadership skills, however, appeared legitimate as he failed to state where he stood on Brexit and he became hostage to a narrative on anti-Semitism which he never got under control.

If your ambition is to cloak your positions in nuance then the last thing you should seek is to lead.

Jo Swinson, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, encouraged by a good showing at the European elections, decided to harden further her party’s anti-Brexit stance.

The Lib Dems wouldn’t back a second referendum after all, they would just cancel Brexit. The people would not be consulted. Illiberal and undemocratic became the charge.

This volte-face smacked of opportunism. Had she helped collapse the government and backed an interim Labour administration she might have helped deliver a second referendum.

But hubris appeared to grip her, no more so than when, with a straight face, she declared she was a candidate for Prime Minister. All over the land, ribs cracked to the motion of laughing voters falling off settees. The Lib Dems returned 13 MPs to the House of Commons.

At that election, Brexit and Scottish independence dominated. The polls all showed a large Conservative lead, but commentators, mindful that the unpredictable was the new predictable, were queasy about firm judgements. Bets were further hedged over the scope for tactical voting.

When the exit poll came it spoiled the drama of election night. An eight-hour watch became an exercise in the largely pointless as the end result was broadcast in the first five minutes. It was all like starting The Great Escape with Steve McQueen entangled in barbed wire long after he had made his escape. These polls are now an inducement to get to bed.

The election result recast our politics and Boris Johnson did indeed reach parts of the country no other previous Conservative had.

Ex-miners, steel workers, car workers, the very bedrock of class-based socialism, all voting Conservative. Not long ago such a suggestion by any politician would have invited a visit from the men in white coats.

In Scotland, of course, there is no majority for Brexit, even less support for the Conservatives and electorally impressive results for a dominant party which demands another shot at independence.

The building blocks of a disunited kingdom are in place. Northern Ireland voted remain too, uniting nationalists, republicans and non-aligned in protest.

And even the Brexiteers of the DUP find they have no friends at Westminster.  Loyalists may well ask, what kind of Union is it when we feel abandoned?

I have watched politics closely for 30 years. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issues of 2019, two overwhelming feelings leave me to say a hearty good riddance to the past year.

Politicians from across the spectrum have shuddered that government has been so paralysed and so dysfunctional.

And at the level of individuals, I have found for the first time they are scared to go about their work such is the intolerance, the bad-tempered tribalism often rooted in sexism and misogyny. That it should come to this, that it should come to this.

Roll on 2020. Let the great debates be robust but respectful for democracy demands it.

But let’s hope that the public discourse is elevated to demonstrate that public service and servants can be a beacon for hope.

More than once this year I have felt that very discourse has looked towards the sky, all too often being conducted by an unpleasant braying right from the gutter.