Monday 16 September 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'As the children melt down, will the adults save us?'

It seems to be all a game to Boris and Rees-Mogg. As Bojo starts to tire of the game, people are starting to listen to the grown-ups, says Brendan O'Connor

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: AFP/Getty
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: AFP/Getty
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

There is a trope in gangster films, and indeed in real life, where an older generation, who were gangsters but saw themselves as men of honour, are succeeded by a newer, more savage generation. This new generation, often driven by cocaine, discard whatever vague understandings and rules of engagement their fathers held to. Rather than being businessmen, for whom violence can be an unfortunate side-line of doing business, they become psychotic thugs.

Ireland hasn't always loved the Tories, but as we looked at the likes of John Major and Kenneth Clarke last week, we realised that these men were giants. They looked classy and civilised and decent and grown-up next to what they spawned. Major, of course, didn't go to Eton. Major left school at 16. His family had moved to Brixton after his former-circus-acrobat father's garden ornament business went into decline. Clarke did go to a fee-paying school and then to Cambridge, but he, too, is from more humble beginnings than Johnson and Rees-Mogg.

Britain is often portrayed these days as a politically infantile place. But what we saw last week was that there are adults in the room, they just aren't in charge.

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Watching the addictive slow-motion car crash unfold at the House of Commons, you had to conclude that to the children - the likes of Johnson and Rees-Mogg - this whole thing is, as Clarke said, but a game.

Watching it, I was again transported back to my intervarsity debating days. These were the kinds of characters we debated against from England, who revelled in the theatre and the ceremony, the mock pomposity and the arcane rules of parliamentary-style debating. And it was a game back then, mainly about ego, theatricality and impressing girls. But it is shocking to see, 30 years on, that these types never grew up, and that even when the consequences become all too real, it is still a game to them.

Languishing draped across a bench in the House was Rees-Mogg's viral moment of arrogance last week, but in fact it was his conduct during the debate about handing over control of the House that was really appalling to watch. His country was at a deadly serious point in its history, potentially inflicting huge harm on itself and a whole continent, and Rees-Mogg was clearly just enjoying the attention. He answered questions about prorogation with smart-aleck comments and wordplay, threw around clever insults, and generally acted like someone at the Oxford Union on a drunken Saturday night, a sly, delighted smirk on his face.

Boris Johnson was a slightly different prospect in Commons appearances last week. There were theatrics, yes, lots of gurning and mugging and throwing up his arms for the camera, but there was a nasty snarl to Johnson as well. And as he threw around words like 's**t' and called Corbyn a chlorinated chicken and a big girl's blouse, it felt at times as if his mask slipped. There was a psychotic look in his eyes, and a facial expression that suggested that behind the posh boy mask there is a common or garden English thug and bully.

Then again, maybe the Tories who blame Dominic Cummings for dragging Boris down are right. Somewhere in the maelstrom last week, there was footage of Dominic Cummings speaking at a private event some time back where he said research showed that politicians gained popularity based more on a good speech, a good joke, or a good soundbite rather than anything more substantial. This was clearly Boris's road to success. But maybe when you become the boss, the man in the arena, people suddenly demand a level of competence that is beyond Johnson and Cummings's games. And equally if you win the leadership based on the fact that you are a winner, then you need to get some wins, which Boris is having trouble with so far.

Of course, as the week went on, Boris would start to look more and more unhinged. Even his beloved Telegraph turned on him as the week went on, and was concerned for his state of mind after last Thursday's rambling speech at a police training centre in West Yorkshire. His biographer, Sophie Purnell, who admittedly seems to hate Boris, wonders how stable Boris's life is now. She thinks his ex-wife Marina was a stabilising influence, and of course, he has now lost the support of his brother to whom he was very close.

In truth, Boris did not look like a particularly stable individual when meeting Mike Pence last Thursday. Increasingly, Boris's resilience is being questioned. Those who know him are saying Boris doesn't cope very well when the audience turns on him. And Boris is apparently quite reliant on the people around him to prop him up. And right now, that seems to increasingly mean Dominic Cummings, which isn't ideal for Boris, or any of us. This past week it has seemed we were witnessing how an angry child can go from snarling and bullying to feeling lost, lonely and bewildered very quickly.

And that's when we need adults. And there are plenty of adults around. For starters, some of the 21 people that Boris/Cummings expelled from the party seemed like adults. Kenneth Clarke obviously has more class in his little finger than all the Brexiteers put together. He even came out last Thursday evening to express his sadness for the Johnson brothers at their falling out. Even the Philip Hammonds and the Dominic Grieves and others suddenly seem like giants right now, and not just because we in Ireland agree with them. But Cummings and Boris have seen fit to excise that strand of decency and maturity and level-headedness from the Conservative Party.

There are other adults popping up all over the place as time goes on.

Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, of the CBI, came out last week to make the very obvious point that a no-deal will hugely damage business as billions are diverted to prepare for no deal and consumer confidence suffers. Fairbairn also stressed, when making this point that she had gone out to talk to lots of businesspeople in the real world before speaking publicly. So she was reflecting what serious people think, people who probably didn't go to Eton or who might not be good at jolly japery in the Oxford Union, but people for whom things have real consequences, like lost jobs or going bust, grown-ups. But then, we know Boris's attitude to them: F**k business.

Dr David Nicholl, a neurologist who contributed to Yellowhammer, pointed out last week that harm will be done to some patients in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and that some may die. Rees-Mogg then used parliament to condemn Dr Nicholl for being as irresponsible as Dr Andrew Wakefield, the struck off, anti-vaxxer doctor.

Again, Nicholl doesn't sound like he went to a posh school or college. But for Dr Nicholl things have real-life consequences too. But then Nicholl is an expert. And f**k experts. They overthink everything and get in the way with their nonsense. You'd never do anything if you listened to experts. They are not people of action like Boris and Rees-Mogg.

It was sad last week to see the great potential of British democracy. Some very bright people are clearly still attracted to it. They have a standard of debate in general that puts our Dail to shame. And there is clearly a sense of decency and public service and integrity among many UK politicians.

While it can be hard to see at times how the adults might prevail, there are heartening straws in the wind. The party is turning on Cummings. Even the likes of Sajid Javid are saying that the 21 rebels should be allowed back into the party. You can only hope that the childish forces of fire and fury may have overplayed their hand.

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