Where have all the heavyweights gone?

Dougal Paver from Merrion Strategy asks 'Where have all the heavyweights gone?'

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Words: Dougal Paver, Merrion Strategy

I once worked for a business whose MD loved a good crisis.  “Never let one go to waste,” was his maxim, and he’d occasionally stir up a bit of trouble to see how people reacted.

Metaphorically, he wanted to see who’d calmly be organising the line passing buckets toward the flames and who’d be running around waving their arms and yelling “Fire!”

Needless to say, he had a senior leadership team of genuine heavyweights.  Many were young but made of the right stuff.  Age wasn’t the issue: it was competence, leadership and authority that he was after.

The same holds true for government.  You do not need to agree with a politician’s philosophical platform to be able to spot gravitas, competence and ability.

At this time of national crisis, sadly, it seems that politics has a dearth of people with the right stuff, on both sides of the House.  Just when we need them most.

I’m old enough to remember an era of true political heavyweights: people with razor-sharp intellects and an unshakeable philosophical underpinning which they stood by in the great contest of ideas that marked the seismic shifts in society, economics and politics before the millennium.  In the seventies and eighties we had the likes of Michael Foot, Tony Benn and Peter Shaw on the left; Margaret Thatcher, Sir Keith Joseph and Kenneth Baker on the right.  Top-grade thinkers and leaders, all.

Right up through to the Blair years there were people of enormous calibre in government: Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam and Blair himself, among others.  Can’t argue with three landslides, whatever your political standpoint.

And today?  There’s a PhD thesis waiting to be written about why people of the ability of Michael Heseltine or David Blunkett, say, no longer seem attracted to politics in the numbers they once were.

To be fair, the pandemic is an unprecedented political and organisational crisis for which there is no modern precedent and therefore no accepted rule book.  The government and its advisors are learning as they go.  You’d need the wisdom of Job to see this through unscathed, or at least the qualities of a Henry Kissinger.  The fact that we’re constantly left questioning government’s decision-making and rueing its outcomes speaks for itself.

The government has not been without its successes, of course.  You have to give Boris Johnson credit for the UK’s vaccination development and acquisition strategy.  Working in partnership with the private sector to support drug development whilst acting nimbly to source multiple supply lines has proven to be a master-stroke.  The electorate can see the dead hand of state control at work in the EU and a vaccination rate five times lower than the UK’s and know what they’d prefer.  And the polls back this up.

But overall, is the nation thanking its lucky stars for the sheer quality of our government?   I don’t think so.  Much of its performance is, to be polite, sub-par.  Boris, however, is proving to be a very lucky general.  Just when the country needs an opposition of heavyweights to hold his feet to the fire what do we have?  A shadow cabinet busy addressing issues which are either of little interest to the electorate or to which voters are singularly opposed.  On the specific issue of the pandemic, they have flip-flopped between policy positions, hoping the electorate doesn’t notice.

This should be Labour’s moment, but there’s no hiding from the polls: the electorate clearly deem the party irrelevant to the task at hand; unable to bring to bear the necessary scrutiny, policy ideas and political heft to help get us out of the crisis we face and a national funk of the Tories’ making.  There are too many people yelling “Fire!”, it seems, and not enough looking for the water hydrant.

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