How May gives the press the slip

The New European - - Agenda - Alas­tair Camp­bell Edi­tor-at-large

How many par­al­lel uni­verses are we ex­pected to live in? A new one ar­rived on Mon­day, head­lines pro­claim­ing a revo­lu­tion in health­care, and the en­tirely mar­vel­lous no­tion that half a mil­lion chil­dren’s lives were go­ing to be saved by ge­netic test­ing. Half a mil­lion chil­dren saved, half a mil­lion fam­i­lies spared grief and deso­la­tion, what’s not to like?

It all sounds great. Just as it sounded great when Theresa May stood on the steps on Down­ing Street al­most 1,000 days ago and told how her premier­ship would ad­dress the “burn­ing in­jus­tices” of our time. Re­mem­ber the ‘Just About Man­ag­ing’? Re­mem­ber the com­mit­ment to im­prov­ing ser­vices in men­tal health, ad­dress­ing the gen­der pay gap, racial in­equal­ity in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, im­prov­ing state schools, help­ing the young onto the hous­ing lad­der, boost­ing job se­cu­rity? Hand on heart, can she say there has been progress? Well, she can, just as she can say her Brexit deal is de­liv­er­ing what the Bri­tish peo­ple want, while be­ing very care­ful to make sure she never has to ask them. The truth, how­ever, is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

So now out comes an­other ten-year plan for the NHS, big bold plans, and yet de­spite the pre­vi­ous com­mit­ments of their last big bold plans be­ing so spec­tac­u­larly un­met, May and her team feel no shame whatever in mov­ing on to the next ones, and most of the me­dia is so short-ter­mist it lets them. Wait­ing times up, wait­ing lists longer, A&E tar­gets shot to pieces, her pledge that chil­dren would not have to leave their own area for psy­chi­atric care long for­got­ten, an ex­plo­sion in peo­ple liv­ing on the streets, the Just About Man­ag­ing long since despatched to the over­flow­ing dust­bin of once use­ful slo­gans; and yet with the same breezy brio they come along and say ‘this plan, this time, just you watch …’

How I long for an in­ter­viewer to sit down with May and sim­ply take her through the things she has said be­fore, armed with the facts about how far away from de­liv­ery she now is. There are dis­ad­van­tages to be­ing a politi­cian to­day, not least the omni-pres­sure of the me­dia, but there are ad­van­tages too – like the se­ri­ous at­ten­tion span deficit disor­der among jour­nal­ists this omni-pres­sure has cre­ated, and their as­sump­tion that the pub­lic can­not be both­ered with too much de­tail.

Trump-like, May feels lit­tle or no shame in say­ing black is white, and wrong is right. So when An­drew Marr put it to her on his Sun­day pro­gramme that she had promised there would be a com­pre­hen­sive trade deal in place at this stage of the ne­go­ti­a­tions and so “that has been a fail­ure”, she ut­tered a half-swal­lowed “no” and moved on. But ac­tu­ally – yes. Yes you did. When Marr then quoted to her

Jeremy Cor­byn’s charge that her deal rep­re­sented a “blind Brexit”, she as­serted “no it is not”, and claimed the ex­is­tence of some­thing called “an un­prece­dented de­gree of re­la­tion­ship”. But it is a blind Brexit, in that we sim­ply do not know what our trade re­la­tion­ship is go­ing to be and yes, Marr was right first time.

Older read­ers may re­mem­ber Brian Walden, the Mp-turned-in­ter­viewer. What would he have done with that half-swal­lowed ‘no’?

Picked away at it, had the words at his fin­ger­tips to re­mind her of what she had said be­fore and the facts at his fin­ger­tips to show how she had failed to de­liver on her prom­ises.

What would he have done with the big claims she made for her deal? “Does it de­liver on the ref­er­en­dum, tak­ing back con­trol of our bor­ders, laws and money?” she asked, now in­ter­view­ing her­self. “Yes it does. Does it pro­tect jobs and se­cu­rity? Yes it does. Does it pro­vide cer­tainty for busi­ness? Yes it does.”

Only it doesn’t. In­deed, the rea­son so many Brex­iters are against the deal is that they think it doesn’t de­liver on the ref­er­en­dum, it isn’t re­ally Brexit at all. And the rea­son so many Re­main­ers are against it is that it doesn’t pro­tect jobs and se­cu­rity, or pro­vide cer­tainty for busi­ness, not least be­cause it fails to guar­an­tee an­other of her past prom­ises, namely fric­tion­less trade.

“That’s the case for the deal,” was how An­drew Marr re­sponded to her self-in­ter­view­ing trip­tych. Fair enough, I un­der­stand, he had to move on, there was a lot to get through in the interview, and in the show more gen­er­ally. Mu­sic, arts, it’s not all about pol­i­tics, it’s not all about Brexit. But politi­cians are at an ad­van­tage if they can avoid be­ing pinned down, in the me­dia and in par­lia­ment, and if our col­lec­tive po­lit­i­cal mem­ory be­comes weak­ened by the at­ten­tion span short­en­ing process, the pace of change, the re­lent­less­ness of the news agenda mov­ing from one thing to the next, the need to get through too much.

Don­ald Trump thrives on this. It is what helps keep him afloat. Scan­dals don’t en­dure. Lies get for­got­ten be­cause an­other one has come along. Or – take for ex­am­ple May’s con­tin­ued use of the so-called

Brexit div­i­dend – they do not get prop­erly chal­lenged and the per­pe­tra­tor of the lie feels they can carry on ly­ing. And with Boris John­son’s NHS lie on the red bus, some carry on ly­ing even when it is prop­erly chal­lenged.

It’s as if the present and the fu­ture have no con­nec­tion with the past. Brexit: The Un­civil War, the Chan­nel 4 nearha­giog­ra­phy of Leave strate­gist and NHS lie-cre­ator Dominic Cum­mings, re­minded us of an im­por­tant slice of that past. Even ac­cept­ing that screen­writer James Gra­ham is a drama­tist not a doc­u­men­tary maker, an artist not a po­lit­i­cal chron­i­cler, the film was a re­minder not just of how ve­nal and amoral the cam­paign was, but how quickly the ve­nal­ity and amoral­ity have been for­got­ten, suf­fi­cient for him to feel he didn’t re­ally need to get too deeply into all that. Lies de­lib­er­ately told. Data abused. Elec­toral law bro­ken. And no­body seems to care. A bunch of Oxbridge pri­vate school­boys pretending it was all about the work­ing class. So what? It helped the winning side win. Move on. Suck it up.

And so, tagged onto the main Brexit news story on the BBC on Mon­day morn­ing, a line from Boris John­son’s Tele­graph col­umn that no-deal was the clos­est thing avail­able to what the peo­ple voted for in 2016. Err, that would be the no-deal that he and vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one else in­sisted was not even re­motely on the agenda.

Now it is. Not be­cause any­one voted for it, nor be­cause any­one other than a few ide­o­log­i­cal right-wingers want it. But be­cause we risk slid­ing into it, led there by in­com­pe­tence and hubris, and a govern­ment mak­ing it up as they go along: The prime min­is­ter, who has be­gun to elide two very dif­fer­ent con­cepts – “my deal” and “the na­tional in­ter­est” – and who, in say­ing we will be in “un­charted ter­ri­tory” if her deal is voted down, ad­mits she does not know what will hap­pen; min­is­ters, who all too of­ten em­anate in­ep­ti­tude and in­com­pe­tence ev­ery time they ap­pear on our screens, so that some days watch­ing the news is like tun­ing in to a re­ally bad ver­sion of Dad’s Army. De­fence sec­re­tary Gavin

Wil­liamson even looks like Pike (younger read­ers check out Gold TV sched­ules); Sa­jid – ‘call me The Saj’ – Javid declar­ing a na­tional cri­sis out of a few men in a boat; health sec­re­tary Matt Han­cock, who sounds like he is per­ma­nently buffer­ing, con­sis­tent with his ob­ses­sion for tech and gad­gets from Sil­i­con Val­ley when he might get more from fo­cus­ing on nurses and doc­tors leav­ing to head back to coun­tries closer to home; An­drea Lead­som, who ex­ists purely as a re­minder that no mat­ter how bad Theresa May is, things could have been worse; Chris Grayling turn­ing air­fields into lorry park exercise parks and pre­sid­ing over multi mil­lion con­tracts for ferry com­pa­nies with­out fer­ries… it’s just not funny.

But just as May is de­fend­ing her deal when she knows it is dead, Grayling de­fends his con­tracts award­ing sys­tems with the same blind faith. Due dili­gence has been done. We checked it all out. It’s go­ing to be fine. Ev­ery­thing is go­ing to be fine. Only it’s not.

Tuesday is the big day. The vote. Fi­nally. MPS have an enor­mous re­spon­si­bil­ity. It is about our fu­ture. But they re­ally do need to keep half an eye on the past. Prom­ises made. Prom­ises bro­ken. Claims made for what would hap­pen, only it is not hap­pen­ing; claims made for things they said would not hap­pen, which are. So many rea­sons not to trust this deal, this govern­ment, this prime min­is­ter, this Brexit.

Photo: BBC Pic­ture Pub­lic­ity via Getty Im­ages

EVA­SION: An­drew Marr in­ter­views Theresa May last Sun­day

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