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The Conservatives are criminally incompetent

By Matthew Parris - The Times / 29 July 2017

Remainer Matthew Parris has been a vehement Remain supporter and a harsh critic of Leave advocates and the current government. Here, he explains the reasons for his pessimism.

Even in the bad times, I felt proud of my party but this scarcely believable Brexit shambles has left me deeply ashamed. 

If you’ve a moment, research “Mike the headless chicken” (April 20, 1945 to March 17, 1947). Mike passed away 70 years ago but had managed to live headless (sort of) for 18 months, staggering pointlessly around to the amazement and horror of spectators in many fairgrounds, before finally choking.

Returning to Britain on Thursday, I had been wondering what our Conservative government now reminds me of, when a friend told me of Mike’s sad story. Can this really be Britain? Or has my homecoming ferry re-routed itself to a Central American banana republic where the congreso nacional has packed up for the summer holidays, the foreign minister has gone cavorting in Australia, the stopgap president has departed to walk in Switzerland, the hairy Marxist resistance leader has started wrestling his own commandants and the lugubrious Don Felipe, minister of finance, is staging a slow-motion coup?

Humour, though, is no longer a refuge from the disgrace. What have we come to? Like some dark moon below the horizon, a rogue force is wrenching us from our orbit, and nobody knows what to do. But if you think the purpose of this column is to lament that crazy Brexit decision, you are wrong. Brexit or no Brexit, I have a different focus. A more precise focus than the scattergun commentary which has interested itself in “Britain’s” embarrassment, “the government’s” incompetence, “Whitehall’s” ill-preparedness, “the prime minister’s” inadequacy, “Labour’s” disunity or even “Europe’s” aggressiveness.

There is a main culprit here, and it isn’t any of these candidates. Labour didn’t cause this mess. Whitehall didn’t frame the task, even if it is ill-equipped for its execution. Theresa May may not be up to the job but it’s a job into which she has been forced. And “the government”? The government is a collection of individuals. Where do these individuals come from? Who nominated them? Who keeps them in their jobs? Search for the key word in the following text.

We live in a parliamentary democracy in which voters elect representatives attached to parties. The party as an institution has form, and voice, and policies. The party chooses a leader. The winning party’s leader asks the monarch for authority to govern and if she is satisfied that the party can support its leader in commanding the Commons, she gives it. The leader then chooses every minister from the party’s ranks, and leads a cabinet drawn, too, from the party. And if the party loses confidence in its leader or government, it can, by withdrawing support, dismiss both. The word that keeps appearing in this passage is hard to miss: an entity, a real thing, the thing that’s now in charge of Britain’s direction. It’s called a party. It’s the Conservative Party. Do the voters even begin to understand how this mess is entirely of the Conservative Party’s creation? The Tories are turning Brexit into a humiliating shambles. They called a referendum when they didn’t have to, they accepted the result, they willed Brexit, they promised Brexit, and now they’re comprehensively failing to organise it. You can’t blame the voters, who quite reasonably assumed that the Tories would never have offered a referendum if they hadn’t thought leaving Europe could be arranged.

The fingerprints for this crime of mismanagement are Tory fingerprints. Thirteen months since the referendum and the Conservatives still can’t decide even the broadest outline of the terms on which we hope to leave. The difference between a soft and a hard exit is greater than the difference between staying in and a soft exit, yet the prime minister is still insisting that government policy is for a hard exit, while the chancellor (in her absence) says the opposite.

Nobody really knows what the foreign secretary thinks and I doubt he knows himself. The Brexit secretary, meanwhile, seems to be trying to play it by ear, but with no guidance as to the melody at all. And the trade secretary seems recently to have reconciled himself to three (or, if the chancellor is to be believed, as many as four) further years without any job at all.

Some ministers say we’ll be taking back control of immigration when we leave in 2019, others that we will not. And almost everybody has started to talk of a “transitional” period after leaving, without any hint of a consensus on what we would be transitioning to.

Every Conservative MP bar Kenneth Clarke voted in February for the triggering of Article 50. It now appears they and their leader started the countdown to Britain’s expulsion without even the vaguest plan for what we’d be aiming to achieve, let alone realistically likely to achieve. Worse, they pulled the trigger knowing very well that “Brexit” still meant different things to different members of the party and its government, and there was no reason to hope that divergent aims were ever likely to converge. I call this criminal: irresponsible to the point of culpable recklessness towards their country’s future. The Conservative Party just thought they’d give it a whirl and all but one of them voted for the adventure.

Even in bad times, even when we Tories messed up, I used to feel a pride in the party to which I owe so much. Often too slow, sometimes too rash, sometimes wrong, sometimes mildly corrupt, often missing the public mood, occasionally cowardly, it was still possible to trace through the party’s long history a line of worldly common sense, a distrust of extremism, and a deep sense of duty to the nation. There was a certain steadiness there. Has this deserted us? Do we yet understand, has it yet been born in on us, that it is we and we alone who have led the whole country into the predicament it now finds itself in?

How shall I look in the eye those householders through whose doors I’ve been dropping Tory leaflets all these years: years that will be seen as a permanent stain on the Conservative Party’s reputation? The prime minister has gone away.

“Ladybird, ladybird,” we might cry, “fly away home! Your house is on fire, your children are gone!” Except that we’re better off without her flapping around, spouting implausibilities. Perhaps reality in the shape of Philip Hammond may gradually bear down upon fantasy; perhaps forlorn hopes may steal silently away and various fools, while not repenting of their folly, allow it to slip their recollection.

I hope so. I left Spain feeling ashamed to be British. I return to England ashamed to be a Conservative. 

Times columist