Empty chair

17 June 2019

Possibly you saw last night’s “empty chair” Punch and Judy show, visited upon us by the ambitions of the reliably reach-exceeding-grasp Channel Four programmers and the desperation of the Tory also-rans. It made me want to channel my inner Hunter S Thompson or more accurately P J O’Rourke, railing at politicians as disseminating nothing but lying lies told by liars.

Only Stewart was anything close to honest about Brussels’ settled disinclination to revisit the Withdrawal Agreement. On the other hand, his pivot to accept it is the worst kind of disingenuous, revealing that he couldn’t care less about the nation’s current predicament. Instead, he’s taking inspiration from the Junior Senator from Illinois who famously cast the only vote against G W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Yep, that’s right: Stewart sees himself as the Obama of the United Kingdom, teeing himself up for a godalmighty “I told you so”. However tactically astute this ends up for him, right now it is the reverse of good faith with voters. We also know how Obama turned out: a do-nothing President whose aloofness stoked the discontent leading to his unmannerly successor.

As for the other wannabe leaders, Stewart may have accurately caught the sterility of their posturing, but his cunning plan holds him back from challenging them where it matters. In fact, all five are failing to square with the electorate as to the disastrous Withdrawal Agreement. There were a few words about the backstop but silence about its “money for nothing” payment-plan and its “twenty years to life” legal commitments. Stewart went so far as to recycle May’s tin-ear sloganeering to defend her deal, while the other four pretended that they hope to pull a rabbit out of the hat but actually rely on Brussels’ inflexibility to get them (and the rest of us) off the hook.

It’s not so much that none of the four Leave-inclined contenders in the room wants to frighten the horses, by way of the general public and the private sector. It’s more that they wish to keep their powder dry for dealings with the Speaker, Tory Remainers, and such cross-party would-be Brexit-wreckers as failed last Wednesday to take control of the Parliamentary agenda. This is before we get to the civil service, judiciary and press.

No-one mentioned the ERG, whose destiny is either to keep the next Prime Minister honest by refusing fig-leaves from Brussels, or to get picked off by blackmail, blandishments and bribes engineered by defter operators than the most recent line-up.

The winner yesterday evening was the occupant of Chanel Four's empty chair. Boris has now seen his rivals at their best and at their most vulnerable: Raab defending the disrepute of prorogation; Gove, Hunt and Javid as though coached by University careers departments for a first-job interview, trotting out their contrived back-stories no matter how irrelevant; and Stewart winning the audience but cheating the country.

Now for Tuesday.