When a UK Prime Minister leaves 10 Downing Street, their office and official residence, for their final audience with the monarch, all the staff – political advisers and civil servants – line the corridor from the hall outside the Cabinet room to the front door to clap the PM and their partner out.

As soon as the famous door of No 10 closes, the permanent staff rush back to their offices to prepare for the new incumbent. Meantime, the political staff surrender their official passes and head through the link door to the Cabinet Office, exiting discreetly through 70 Whitehall rather than creating a flood down Downing Street.

As Tony Blair’s political secretary I was there in 2007 when he left and, after a big hug from his wife Cherie and an emotional farewell, I headed off straight to the BBC cameras on College Green, opposite the Houses of Parliament, to launch my career as a commentator.

That “clapping out” for Tony Blair was the third time in 28 years a prime minister had left No 10. The appointment of Rishi Sunak gave the UK its third PM in two months, and the Conservative party its fifth leader in six years. Tory leaders’ names will soon become synonyms for periods of time: “Having a long summer break?” “Just a Truss!”
How has it come to this? This isn’t the turbulence of an emerging democracy with complex forms of proportional representation and a range of new and relatively unstable parties. This is the UK – one of the world’s longest-established democracies. And the Conservative party is the oldest and most electorally successful political party in the world. One which has thrived on reinvention and its ability to adapt to changing social and economic circumstances.

Starmer is a man who, in the great Australian saying, has been kissed on the arse by a rainbow

Even today, in the midst of a deep political crisis, the Conservative party is boasting that after its third female prime minister it now has the second ethnic minority PM, after Disraeli, and the first practising non-Christian. (Though to be fair, diversity in leaders is much easier if you go through them so fast).

As ever, the Germans have a word for it. Not schadenfreude, though it would take a heart of stone to view the last two months of the Johnson/Truss/Sunak Conservative party without laughing. Particularly the extraordinary contortions of Nadhim Zahawi, whose first public act on becoming Boris Johnson’s Chancellor – replacing Rishi Sunak, who had resigned to force Johnson out – was to write an open letter calling for Johnson’s resignation, though falling noticeably short of offering his own. In the national interest, naturally. Having ratted once, Nadhim re-ratted in the contest to replace Liz Truss, backing Boris so vigorously he had an article that went online in the Daily Telegraph just as Boris announced he wouldn’t be running. Again, in the national interest.

No, the mot juste is Sigmund Freud’s coinage of wiederholungszwang – repetition compulsion. With the rise of populism, and the frequent triumph of heart-over-head, I have thought for some time that politics needs more psychologists than psephologists. Freud’s essay Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through seems to describe the post-Brexit Tory party. His patient revisits trauma again and again and “does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, he acts it out, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it.” He also diagnoses a destiny neurosis: “an essential character-trait which remains always the same and which is compelled to find expression in a repetition of the same experience.”

To a hammer every problem is a nail, to the contemporary parliamentary Tory party every problem can be solved with a change of leader. Yet however the leadership contests twist and turn, like the Red Queen they end up in exactly the same place – trailing far behind Keir Starmer’s Labour party – which has been in the lead in over 250 opinion polls in a row. This is a long way from the reshaping of the UK political landscape that some Conservatives celebrated after the 2019 general election when they scooped up traditional Labour votes and seats – bagging them three of the seven seats in county Durham, including Tony Blair’s old constituency of Sedgefield.

The thing is that sometimes big victories are over-interpreted. Yes, Boris Johnson won a landslide, but it was an election fought against a far-left pensioner leading a party accused, and found guilty, of institutional anti-semitism. That certainly left a hugely weakened Labour party, but it was also part of a larger and longer pattern of political instability in the UK. Theresa May threw away a 20-point poll lead and a majority in 2017 in a contest with that very same far-left pensioner. In 2016 David Cameron lost the Brexit referendum he called when he thought it couldn’t be lost. Partly because in 2015 he won the first Tory majority for over twenty years. Although he should have noted the 2014 Scottish independence referendum saw support for separatism rise by half to 45% over a long campaign.

The truth is that the tectonic plates have been moving in UK politics for over a decade – and they haven’t stopped yet. It all goes back to 2008 and the Global Financial Crisis. It was a crisis that revealed the weaknesses in mainstream politics. The banks nearly crashed the global economy, which would have caused a second Great Depression. By bailing out the banks, Gordon Brown – and other G7 leaders – avoided that fate, though there was still a recession. This was a huge triumph of government intervention, but all the voters saw was banks being bailed out with taxpayers’ money while not a single banker went to jail. More than any other single event, it fuelled the rise of populism. The left couldn’t explain why they had bailed out banks, and the right couldn’t explain why no bankers were in prison. The populists had a cry – “Drain the swamp!” Incumbent governments had a counterfactual refrain – “Just look at the Depression that never happened!”

The populists also grasped something enormous about modern politics, which has been accelerated rather than created by social media – the integration of politics into celebrity. Previously, some politicians had become celebrities and had cultural influence as a result. JFK is an early example – when he stopped wearing hats because it improved the look of his campaign shots, he killed the hat industry stone dead. Until the Fifties all men wore hats; after the early Sixties none did. More recently, Jerry Springer was an elected mayor before he became a tabloid talk show host. But it was Donald Trump who showed that not only could you broker celebrity into the ultimate political power – you could also bring the narrative tropes and soap opera of celebrity into politics too.

Daytime soap operas are a drama of constant reinvention in which plot twists ensure no character is stable, no past events are fixed and everything and everyone can be made and remade constantly. Both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson understood the political power of living and acting in a perpetual present. Yesterday’s actions and statements weren’t relevant to them today, any more than today’s would be tomorrow. For politicians and media this was baffling – why couldn’t they hold these people to account? For voters it was exhilarating – thrilling and funny to see conventions being torn up.

But, as David Chase, creator of The Sopranos said, everything comes to an end. There is a gravity to politics – both its seriousness and force – that eventually comes into play. The forceful return of material reality to politics has come in multiple forms. Inflation. Stagnation. Russian aggression. Each a reminder of the limits of narrative. As they say, history may be a fiction, but it doesn’t feel like that when you miss your plane.

And when reality bites, the political leader who is needed is one who understands that you can’t talk your way out of a problem you’ve behaved your way into. Step forward, Keir Starmer, a former prosecutor used to weighing the facts in a story, not the jokes. Having seen off two prime ministers in just over two years, Starmer is a man who, in the great Australian saying, has been kissed on the arse by a rainbow. How did he get so lucky? In truth, he made his own luck. He stood for the Labour leadership after the party had its worst defeat since the 1930s. Others decided to let him do the hard work of reconstruction and take the inevitable defeat in 2024, when they could take over and steer Labour to victory by the end of the decade. Keir Starmer was seen as dull compared to the undoubted charisma of Johnson, but it was Starmer whose forensic approach forced Johnson to get an inquiry established under Simon Case, which was taken over by Sue Gray, and then led to the dossier which led to both the then prime minister and the current one being fined for breaking the Covid laws they wrote. And it’s Starmer whose Clause IV moment was getting Labour conference to sing “God Save the King”.

Looks like there’s a real market for anti-populism – Make Politics Boring Again.

John McTernan is a political strategist who advises political parties and governments around the world. He was Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Political Secretary, and Director of Communications for Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard

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Main Features, October 2022

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