Dominic Cummings’ recent claims regarding the government’s handling of coronavirus should have impacted electoral support for the government. Whether one believes them to be true or not, such claims of incompetency should be expected to shift support towards opposition parties. Yet this has not been the case. The fact that it hasn’t speaks volumes about our currently low expectations of politicians and presents a dangerous outlook for the political future of the country.
It seems bizarre to those (such as myself) who can only remember UK politics as far back as the coalition government that over a decade of political tumultuary would see the incumbent party continue to increase their grip over the polls. But this view, I believe, somewhat betrays my lack of experience of seeing a different ruling party in Westminster. Whilst the exams fiasco, Brexit, and Grenfell have served to demonstrate the current government’s incompetence, it is unclear why these issues are necessarily more scandalous than the MP expenses scandal, the Financial Crash, and the Iraq War.
For those who have witnessed both, it is unsurprising that their conclusion has been one of apathy. Neither the Tories nor Labour appear particularly apt at governing, and thus their vote (if they vote at all) no longer swings according to who they believe will govern the country better. Instead, people vote merely on emotion, and social views – the latter of which the Conservatives appear to be broadly in tune with.
This creates a dangerously inert political landscape, leading to a situation where there appears little chance of breaking the Conservative consensus that we have now had for eleven years. This is an unsustainable length of time for one party to govern. Whilst some may point to Japan, who has only seen the Liberal Democratic Party lose power twice since 1955, as a credible example of a democracy which can survive for long periods of one-party governance, the reality is that the British system is poorly set up for a similar style of government.
The reasons for this are twofold.
Firstly, a strong government means that ministers are less accountable to elected representatives, since they have the electoral support to circumvent any challenge from their own backbenches. Consequently, the power of non-elected officials grows. As seen with the control that Dominic Cummings exerted across Downing Street, and before that Alistair Campbell’s powerful grasp of Blair’s government, large majorities leave aides and civil servants in a much more significant role than otherwise. This might not be problematic for some countries, but with the British Civil Service still struggling to move past its reputation as being filled with well-educated, and well-to-do private schoolers, if we do let ourselves fold to apathy over our politicians’ incompetence, then we consequently allow for a government which does not accurately reflect or understand the country as a whole.
Secondly, the British system is set up for the Opposition to challenge the government. Westminster politics is adversarial by its very nature, and it is the role of the Opposition to maintain accountability and help prevent incompetence within Whitehall by maintaining a strong, critical eye upon it. If trust in politicians has indeed eroded to the point where the Opposition can no longer cobble together a meaningfully large set of MPs, then an important check on power is lost within our system.
Yet is there anything we can do about this? In the short term, unfortunately, I remain somewhat pessimistic.
Dismantling the culture of complete distrust in politicians will not be achieved within a day or even a decade. It will take time to combat distrust in our representatives. Doing so might arrive in the form of greater levels of political education within our schools, to create not just a more politically engaged electorate, but also to encourage a wider array of people to run for office. Or maybe it will come in the form of significant changes to the structure of government – be that through the localisation of powers to councils, or the much-needed reform of the civil service.
Either way, such reform will require trust in politicians and strong, confident leadership within Westminster. Whether or not that can be achieved in the current environment remains to be seen.
It is important to note that Dominic Cummings himself is not the most trustworthy source of information; he is likely to be using his recent Committee appearance at Westminster to keep himself absolved from blame. On a somewhat more optimistic note, it could be the case that the voters in the UK are more rational than we give them credit for, and they have instead interpreted Cummings’ comments as nothing more than pot-stirring, thus remaining reluctant to transfer their vote elsewhere.
But this, in my opinion, is unlikely. Instead, for the time being, the future of British politics – one of hapless cabinet members, Machiavellian aides, and obfuscating civil servants – appears bleak.
Photograph: Jack Lines