“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” So says the White Queen to Alice as she makes her way through a large living chessboard after climbing through the looking glass.
It frequently strikes me that UK politicians inhabit Lewis Carroll’s back-to-front Looking Glass world, full of contradictions and nonsenses, though they rarely achieve the level of humour (or ability to entertain) of Oxford’s celebrated mathematical novelist.
MPs on both sides of the House seem to consider it acceptable to turn on their leaders and tear their party apart, hell-bent on self-destruction. At the same time their leaders show themselves incapable of holding their parties together.
For Labour it is perhaps an inevitable phase. In response to a largely centrist Cameron government, the opposition can do little but lurch towards the left. So it elects a left-winger as leader, arguably a logical move in a party that consistently describes itself as a “broad church”. Arguably the Tories went through a similar period when Tony Blair seized the middle ground and won his landslide.
Then the plotting and the wrangling start, fuelled and encouraged by media reports and hostile briefings. This week saw the leaking of a list, drawn up by Corbyn allies, ranking Labour MPs under five categories ranging from “core group” through neutral to “hostile group”.
What idiot did that? Political strategists must calculate where support lies for a leader, and where it doesn’t: but committing it to paper (or, worse, to digital storage) is asking for trouble – let alone (allegedly) leaving it in a pub. Surely in 2016 no one believes that such a document can be shared between even two people and remain confidential?
The result for Labour was that, when the hapless Jeremy Corbyn should have been crucifying his opponent in Prime Minister’s Questions over Tory splits (of which more later), Cameron was able to turn the tables on him, mocking him and Labour’s all-too-obvious divisions.
The political classes never learn from history: if they did, they would remember the mockery John Major endured over his “bastards” list.
Meanwhile, Cameron plays the part of the boy standing on the burning deck as his party tears itself apart in similar fashion. Britain’s membership of the European Union divided John Major’s Tory party twenty years ago, and does so to this day. Histtory will judge whether the PM’s decision to allow supporters of Brexit even in Cabinet to campaign against his view was statesmanlike or downright foolhardy: yet he deserves better treatment from those who previously professed to support him.
Michael Gove displayed all the loyalty of a weasel. Boris Johnson made a point of grandstanding when he announced his decision to promote Brexit (and, I suspect, sank his long-term political prospects). Meanwhile the “quiet man”, Iain Duncan-Smith, flounced out of government, making far too much noise much too late about the Chancellor ignoring the poor: the timing of his exit appeared to have rather more to do with Brexit than with welfare.
The disintegration of both parties, orchestrated wilfully by discontented and disloyal MPs, makes an extraordinary and repulsive spectacle. They dress up sourness and selfishness as principle, and create a platform for themselves when their political careers are on the wane.
Gove had to be moved out of education before the 2015 election after he had becoming demonstrably “toxic” in alienating vast swathes of teachers. IDS has been spectacular only for his abject performance as Tory leader, his lack of charisma exceeded only by Gordon Brown. And Boris, approaching the end of his tenure as London’s Mayor, is about to lose his power-base, returning full-time to the Commons (where he achieved little previously) and risking reverting to his role as party buffoon.
The Mother of Parliaments is close to witnessing the mother of all political meltdowns. A government riven by impossible politicians remains unchallenged by an Opposition in tatters.
These are impossible people who kid themselves that they can behave in this way and not do damage to their parties and to our democracy. Like the White Queen, they are busy trying to believe an impossible thing.
We voters put them there! We must ensure we punish them when we next get the chance: or am I now thinking the impossible?