ONE OF THE highlights of any political journalist’s year is the Spectator dinner. Politicians and hacks drink fine champagne, eat good food and exchange juicy gossip, while the magazine’s editor hands out awards to Members of Parliament. But this year’s dinner, held on November 28th, had a surreal air. It was as if the Russian political class was toasting its brilliance in 1917 or the German one celebrating its triumphs in 1932.
The awards are supposed to recognise the best of the British parliamentary system. That system is convulsed by its worst crisis in the democratic era, as politicians fall over each other to make fools of themselves and ancient traditions crumble. Everywhere you look you can see politics at its worst: conspiracy, back-stabbing, grandstanding and chaos. So, in tune with the spirit of the times, we present an alternative set of awards.
Starting with the minor gongs, let’s honour the seat-blocker of the year. The one thing that the Conservative Party has going for it is a rising generation of talented MPs, but their progress into government is being stymied by ministers who should never have been promoted. Liam Fox, the trade secretary, and Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, are strong candidates for this award, but nobody can hold a candle to the transport secretary, Chris “Failing” Grayling, whose combination of incompetence and unpopularity put him several lengths ahead of the rest. Not only did Mr Grayling mess up the introduction of a new train timetable so badly that whole sections of the railway system seized up, but he tried to palm the blame off on everybody but himself. This week a parliamentary committee produced a report on his performance so withering that, in normal times, he would have had to resign. But Mr Grayling had taken the precaution of being the first cabinet minister in David Cameron’s government to back Brexit, thus making himself unsackable.
Next, the failed comeback of the year. The comeback is one of the great political arts. Winston Churchill performed it after a decade in the wilderness in the 1930s and Bill Clinton brilliantly christened himself “the comeback kid”. Several candidates for this award deserve a mention. David Miliband, a former Labour foreign secretary who legged it to New York, has repeatedly signalled that he is “interested in Britain” only to be told that Britain is not interested in him. Sir Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has failed to revive his party even though it is the only one keen to remain in the EU. David Cameron floated the idea of returning to politics as foreign secretary only to be shoved back into the shed in which he has been writing his uneagerly awaited memoirs. Since they all come from the same tendency, we decided to hand the award to the whole of the political centre, which, though it dominated politics for two decades, has failed to produce a leader who could save the country from disaster.
Our next award goes to the most deluded politician of the year. There’s a lot of competition for this one, but that’s not surprising: Parliament is full of Labour numpkins who think that they are Nye Bevan and Tory nonentities who see themselves as Churchill. Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the hard-Brexiteers, who boasted that he would engineer a vote of no confidence in Theresa May only to discover that he had barely half the support he needed, is a powerful contender. But David Davis runs away with it. He was a disaster as Brexit secretary, which he blames on the civil service and everybody else blames on his laziness. He nonetheless swaggers around Parliament like a Roman general returning from conquering the Gauls, demanding a “clean Brexit” and waiting for the Tory faithful to put the garland of supreme power on his brow.
On to a specialised category: own-goal scorer of the year. Lord Adonis, a former Labour minister leading the charge for another referendum, is a strong candidate. He claims to stand for the reasonable centre but presents his arguments in such unreasonable terms that he alienates potential allies. He has repeatedly accused the BBC of supporting Brexit, and has called for journalists he doesn’t agree with to be sacked. But lately he has been outshone by Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP’s twin passions are taking Britain out of the EU and keeping Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, out of Downing Street. Ms Foster’s strident opposition to Mrs May’s deal makes it far likelier that Britain will have a second referendum, which might keep Britain in the EU, or a general election, which Mr Corbyn might well win, or both.
Man of the moment
And now for our highest and most coveted award, which goes to the politician who has done most to let down his party and country. Some of our judges argued for Mrs May, but the panel swiftly dismissed the idea. Even if, as seems likely, her career ends in abject failure, she has doggedly tried to hold her party together and produce a Brexit that does not impoverish the country.
Mr Corbyn got more support. There has never been a better opportunity for a profound realignment of politics: the centre has crumbled and the Tory party is tearing itself to pieces. But Mr Corbyn has repeatedly followed the line of least resistance. He dithered on the most important issue facing the country, waffling about a “people’s Brexit”. His sloganising exposes his failure to produce a coherent left-wing philosophy. The only serious thinker in the Labour Party is John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who is increasingly at odds with his leader.
But Mr Corbyn has merely exploited Brexit, and we felt that our award should go to one of the architects of this catastrophe. In a big field, there was one outstanding candidate. He failed miserably as foreign secretary. He sniped at Mrs May while in Cabinet. He has agitated against her deal from the backbenches and in his lucrative newspaper column without presenting a real alternative. A demagogue not a statesman, he is the most irresponsible politician the country has seen for many years. Step forward, Boris Johnson!