The politician, barrister and wit, F. E. Smith, first Earl of Birkenhead, said that there was not a single man in the first Labour government , with the possible exception of J. H. Thomas, the railwayman’s leader, to whom he would entrust the letting out of bicycles.
I know exactly how he felt. I would not trust this government to negotiate its way out of a paper bag. Boris Johnson has actually been in charge of hiring out bicycles but I cannot see anyone with the redeeming features of J. H. Thomas. I live in daily expectation of one further faux pas and the government falling as did that first minority Labour government. They lost the subsequent election after the Daily Mail alleged interference from the Russians. It all sounds familiar.
I do not have much more faith in the Labour Party to handle Brexit either even though Keir Starmer speaks well at the dispatch box. I regret that the Opposition front bench does not include a greater number of moderate and experienced voices.
I despair at the current state of national politics at a time when the challenges have never been greater. This time last year, I asked you to pray for Theresa May as she had the best chance of finding a solution. The Almighty must be working in even more mysterious ways than usual. Members of the Cabinet contradict each other and the reports of the Prime Minister begging for help at the dinner table are humiliating.
The regular posturing of Tweedledum and Tweedledee at their twin podiums is embarrassing. Perhaps there are more detailed discussions going on behind the scenes that have of necessity to be kept secret? I have no idea, for example, of the government’s proposals for the Irish border, which is a precondition of trade talks, or have any sense that progress is being made.
Each day brings more gloomy prognostications. The much respected OECD predicts the British economy will never recover. A German professor says Brexit is more complicated than landing a man on the moon. 5000 more civil servants must be recruited. The North East economy will lose £8bn if there is no deal. The Cornish pasty is threatened. Even discounting for hype, there is an unrelenting bad news story every time I switch on the radio.
According to Peter Kellner, support for leaving Europe is slowly seeping away. U Gov polls show that leave support has shrunk from 47% to 42%. I am heartened by hints of cross party plotting for a soft Brexit and the apparent willingness of some Tories to desert the party line.
Michael Bloomberg called Brexit “the stupidest thing any country has done” at least “ until America Trumped it”. But I am not here seeking to challenge the referendum vote as much as despairing at the inability of the government to implement the so called will of the people.
The melodrama will dominate political life for years to come and I will live with the implications for the rest of my life. In the meantime, the things that really matter are side lined when the simmering crises about welfare, housing and social care need undivided attention.
We delude ourselves that it will come right by Spring 2019 when smiling politicians will sign the leaving documents on camera. If Jezza is in charge by then, they will hug. In the meantime, we persevere with stiff upper lip because anything challenges the due process of government and admits defeat.
We live in ever more surreal times. This newspaper is even accused by a correspondent of becoming increasingly left wing, apeing the Guardian as he put it, which some might say is a compliment. I am sure the Editor calls it as he sees it and events make it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the government is living on borrowed time.
I have no bright ideas but believe something must be done to enable us to start all over again with a clean sheet of paper and a fresh team at the table who might be prepared to admit they face an impossible task.
Should the current generation of leaders give way to their younger counterparts like Ruth Davidson, Jacob Rees Mogg, Clive Lewis or Seema Malhotra, who made mincemeat of the Brexit ministers last week. Should elder statesman be drafted in to give more gravitas like Lord Kinnock, Ken Clarke or Nick Clegg? . Can the moderates in the centre win the ball back from the ideological wingers? Should there be a national Brexit cabinet of all talents?
We need exceptional leadership for the most demanding of times. Somehow or other, the Westminster roadshow needs to win back my support and belief. The stakes are so high and the current performance is so dismal. There is no point keeping up appearances and pretending otherwise. Step forward J. H. Thomas.
Footnote which spoils a good story: F.E. Smith said of his great friend Winston Churchill that Churchill had “spent the best years of his life preparing impromptu remarks”. Smith drank too much and never achieved his potential. Jimmy Thomas was born in poverty but once at Westminster loved parading in a dress suit which may have been why Smith liked him. When he joined the National Government, the comrades expelled him for selling out to capitalism and he resigned after leaking budget secrets.
Publish in the Newcastle Journal on 31st October