Britain tolerates the mediocre, the blowhards, the unprepared, the lazy and the ignorant, but it doesn't take kindly to bad politics, writes Gavin Esler
Theresa May's British government strides closer to the edge
In one of the most famous scenes in the Hollywood movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the two cowboy bandits are stuck on a precipitous cliff above a raging river. Behind them a posse of lawmen is closing in for the kill. The cowboys decide their only chance is to jump into the river but the Sundance Kid is nervous because he can’t swim. Don’t worry, Butch Cassidy says. The fall will probably kill you. This is how it feels to be in Britain right now, watching prime minister Theresa May’s hapless government standing on a cliff edge, pursued by a posse of press revelations of sexual scandals, tax dodging at the very highest level, self-inflicted errors and profound weakness. At the bottom of the cliff is the raging torrent of the most difficult and divisive undertaking facing any British government in recent memory, exit from the European Union. Don’t worry. The fall will probably kill you.
Britain’s current foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, is not Butch Cassidy. He is more like Inspector Clouseau, somehow in a position of great responsibility despite a track record of blunders and under-achievement. Mr Johnson is a product of the best educational charm-schools money can buy, Eton and Oxford, and yet for months, years, he has been considered a British national joke. He once referred to African members of the British Commonwealth as “flag-waving picaninnies”. As London mayor his achievements include buying anti-riot water cannon from Germany, which Theresa May immediately stopped him from using. And now as Britain’s top diplomat, Mr Johnson sits at a desk once occupied by some of the most serious minded British statesmen in history, Sir Edward Grey, Lord Halifax, Charles Fox, George Canning and Viscount Castlereagh, yet in his latest gaffe Mr Johnson wrongly claimed that a British woman of Iranian background jailed in Tehran by the authorities had been training journalists in that country. Such careless and misinformed words may result in a long jail term for the unfortunate woman involved. A former senior British diplomat I spoke with found it difficult to contain his anger at what he called Mr Johnson’s laziness at reading his briefing papers, incompetence in failing to understand his ministerial responsibilities, and arrogance in assuming he knows better than everyone else. (And the diplomat was being, well, diplomatic.)
While Mr Johnson teeters on the cliff edge of public ridicule, the UK’s international development secretary, Priti Patel, has been pushed into the torrent below. She resigned after going on holiday to Israel, meeting prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, discussing whether to send British development funds to the Israeli military. This is a subject of such obvious sensitivity that klaxons and alarm bells should have gone off all the way from Westminster to the West Bank. What was Ms Patel thinking? Perhaps like Mr Johnson, she simply was not thinking coherently at all.
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Trying to escape the political mess in the past few days I have been interviewing the hugely talented British actor David Suchet. He is one of the geniuses of the modern theatre, and in his professionalism there is an antidote to the British malaise of incompetence at the highest political levels. Mr Suchet is best known worldwide for his memorable TV portrayal of Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot. We discussed how he prepares for a role on the stage, TV or films. The short answer is that he works hard at it. He reads the script repeatedly, then reads every available relevant book, discusses the role with colleagues, seeks expert advice and thinks a great deal. Mr Suchet takes his job very seriously.
Now again consider our current crop of politicians. Mr Johnson has considerable knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman literature, but his scholarship on Iran appears to have ended with Darius, Xerxes and the ancient Persian empire. Ms Patel, once spoken of as a future prime minister, has missed out or misunderstood 100 years of the history of Israel, Palestine and the Middle East.
Like most British people, I am proud of my country, though being British it feels slightly awkward to make a fuss of this publicly. But I am baffled how in every field of human endeavour except politics, the British - like successful individuals worldwide - achieve great things through training, study, concentration, expertise and skill. David Suchet on stage, Andy Murray on a tennis court, Lewis Hamilton in his racing car, the novels of J K Rowling or the British theoretical physicist Prof Peter Higgs discovering the boson particle, make me proud of this creative, clever country. But in the most important profession affecting all our lives, political leadership, Britain tolerates the mediocre, the blowhards, the unprepared, the lazy and the ignorant. Suchet’s skill as Poirot makes me laugh. The comedy show of politics in Britain today, the badly acted amateur dramatics with an incoherent script that Westminster has become, is no laughing matter. We can do better.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author