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Britain In Urgent Need Of A Unifying Figure – OpEd


By Yossi Mekelberg*

On two separate occasions in the space of just three years, a British prime minister will not have been chosen by all the electorate, but exclusively by the Conservative Party. In this convoluted process, the party’s MPs have selected two candidates out of 12 contenders, whose names have now been put forward to the 160,000 party members to decide which one will be the next prime minister. As for the other 66 million of us who reside in the UK — 46 million of whom are eligible to vote — we will be kindly informed of the identity of the next occupant of 10 Downing Street without having any say in the matter. This is a democratic deficit at its worst, and in the “mother of parliaments” of all places. Ironically, probably tragically, the current process is following the same failed pattern of three years ago, which ended in Theresa May being installed in place of the mastermind of the Brexit referendum calamity, David Cameron.

Admittedly, the Conservative Party is constitutionally within its rights, and it wasn’t that long ago that Labour replaced Tony Blair with Gordon Brown through a similar process, without submitting themselves to the public’s verdict. But these are not normal times, and the Conservative Party, which got us into this Brexit mess, doesn’t even command a majority in Parliament. Consequently, on this occasion, less than half of all MPs have had the privilege of deciding on the final two contenders to present to the party faithful to choose as the next prime minister, leaving the rest of us as mere bystanders at this crucial time, when the future well-being of the country is at stake as the Brexit debacle is brought to some kind of resolution. 

There is an irony, some will argue an extreme case of hypocrisy, in the Brexiteers’ claim that a second referendum, currently being called for by so many, would be undemocratic and disrespect the will of the people, while the Brexiteers themselves are quite content to have the country’s leader chosen by a tiny fraction of the population, and this for the second time in three years. It is somewhat disingenuous to call those who support a second referendum, or even a general election, sore losers or disrespectful of the will of the people, while preventing the British electorate from choosing its next prime minster.

Leaving aside the obvious flaws in the democratic processes, at least we now know the identity of the two candidates left standing in this cabal-like process: Former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and his successor at the Foreign Office, Jeremy Hunt. While it was a done deal from the word go that Johnson would lead the pack, as is his probable elevation to the role of prime minister, those who have run against him have led uninspiring, rather dull, and at times farcical campaigns. For now, only Johnson can stop Johnson from becoming PM, as he is own worst enemy, especially if his colorful private life should unravel about him. 

If the members of the Conservative Party are looking for a safe pair of hands, Hunt should be their choice. His successful entrepreneurial background is something that grass-roots Conservatives appreciate, and his time at the Foreign Office was almost gaffe-free, characterized by a degree of stability and calm following that department’s period under the blundering Johnson. Nevertheless, Hunt’s own integrity was called into question for his conduct as culture secretary, when he was responsible for overseeing the proposed takeover of BSkyB by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. And his performance as health secretary was abysmal: He presided over the slowest period of investment in the NHS since its foundation and, by doing so, badly affected the lives and health of millions, even if the blame cannot rest with him alone but with a government with no demonstrable interest in improving public services.

With the odds stacked against him, Hunt is essentially an extra in a script written to see Johnson enthroned. In this sorry saga in British history, it was Cameron who wrote the opening chapter. In holding a referendum for all the wrong reasons, cynically attempting to appease his party for the purpose of remaining in power at the expense of the national interest, he achieved the worst of all worlds — a divided country, a party at war with itself, and he himself consigned to the dustbin of history. 

Cameron’s successor May, an alleged Remainer committed to Brexit, proved to be completely out of sorts, to lack basic political instincts, and to be a poor negotiator in a situation that even a skillful one would have found hard going. She leaves behind an even more divided country, with its immediate neighbors and allies across the Channel exasperated and harboring very little goodwill toward London, not to mention her party members at each others’ throats while the Tories hemorrhaged support in local and European elections. 

Enter Johnson, the most unsuitable person one could possibly imagine to assume the task of resolving the Brexit calamity. Britain is in urgent and desperate need of a unifying figure, someone who has an eye for detail, who is principled but at the same time pragmatic, who is painfully honest with him or herself and others, someone who can heal the open wounds of recent years and behave responsibly and decently. Johnson meets none of these requirements; quite the opposite. He is divisive, racist, impatient and careless with details. He is either incapable or too intellectually lazy to deal with complexities, and is not known for his honesty, or the seriousness that high office demands. 

Above all, he is a true representative of our zeitgeist of populism, instant gratification and all things shallow. Perhaps the Conservative Party rank and file will wake up from their Johnson fantasy, see him for who he really is and opt for the least worst option of Hunt as PM. Otherwise, it will be left for Parliament to mitigate Johnson’s premiership, in the first instance by preventing him from deliberately or unintentionally sleepwalking the UK into a no-deal Brexit.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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