An eventful month ends with a notable non-event
“In an effort to hide from his failures the prime minister spent this week arguing about an ancient relic that only a tiny minority of the British people have an interest in. Mr Speaker, that’s enough about the Tory party.”Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs 29 Nov 2023
So it is December and, we hope, the festive season. ‘Movember’ is over: up and down the country men have shaved off their moustaches or are growing back their beards. November was a month to remember, and news was prolific. I will mention only in passing the long-overdue return of Suella Braverman to the backbenches, the political exhumation of David, now Lord, Cameron, the continuing rise in net migration to almost three-quarters of a million, the pre-election flavoured autumn statement from the chancellor, the tragically unfolding Israel/Gaza crisis, and of course Ukraine.
A confected row?
Instead I wanted to comment on how the month ended, on a sour note, and with an event at once trivial and also highly symptomatic of a much broader malaise at the heart of government. The prime minister’s decision to cancel at the last minute the long-planned meeting with his Greek opposite number, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is virtually unprecedented in international diplomacy, and, whatever its reasons, is a sign of weakness not of strength.
The allegation was that Mitsotakis had raised the issue of the
Elgin Marbles Parthenon sculptures*, having promised that he would not, and so it was feared that they would overshadow anything else in the planned meeting. The truth is that in his interview on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, Mitsotakis – entirely in response to a question from her – reiterated long-established Greek policy on the subject. He could certainly not have done otherwise, at least not without horrifying his voters at home.
What Rishi Sunak apparently failed to appreciate was the opportunity cost of his actions. He was due to have the chance to discuss potentially significant issues such as migration, climate change, Gaza and the Ukraine war with a fellow leader who can expect to be in office for quite a few years, having only recently won a general election. Furthermore, Mitsotakis was somebody of his own political hue who up to now would have been seen as a natural ally. Instead he blew it and caused reputational damage to himself, as well as offence to the Greek people, by extension to Mitsotakis’s fellow EU leaders, and indeed to the leaders of other NATO countries.
Sunak presented Keir Starmer with the opportunity to be the adult in the room, and to accuse Sunak at PMQs of having (to stay with the Greek theme) a ‘Reverse Midas touch’, turning all he touches into something for which James Cleverly would undoubtedly have a word. Indeed, Starmer reported having had a perfectly amicable meeting with Mitsotakis, despite taking a similar line on the marbles as Sunak would have done.
On top of that, Sunak has put the marbles back on the agenda, which can only gain public sympathy for the Greek cause and bring forward the stones’ return to Athens.
It sounds very much as if what Sunak was trying to do was throw red meat to the unreconstructed ‘Spartans’ in his party, many of whom neither know nor care about the statues. If so he now knows the attempt has backfired. He succeeded in uniting those from his own party and others, regardless of their views about the right place for the marbles, in seeing him as thin skinned, peevish, Quixotic and ill advised. Some Tories, like Geoffrey Clifton Brown and William Hague, will come out and say it; others will just think it.
Common sense needed
This may of itself appear trivial in comparison to what is going on in the world just now, but it is part of a pattern. Remember Sunak’s fawning and uncritical ‘interview’ with Elon Musk? Remember his self-inflicted humiliation at the Conservative Party conference? Braverman on her departure spoke of his ‘magical thinking’ and even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Never before has a prime minister been more in need of the help of a ‘minister for common sense’. But that post is now held by Esther McVey and she will need to learn a bit of common sense herself before she can offer her boss any.
And all of this is happening against the backdrop of the Covid Inquiry. This may make riveting television, but it must also be profoundly heart-wrenching for those who have suffered loss during the pandemic. And it is infuriating for anybody who cares about how responsibly – or not – the country is run. So far we have had the undignified spectacle of a queue of politicians, civil servants and spads revealing the chaos and the ‘toxic culture’ (in Matt Hancock’s own words) which prevailed in Downing Street, and in most cases implicating themselves in the cover-up which surrounded it. Many of them tried to shift the blame and throw verbal grenades at each other.
On one thing they – at least all but one – seem to have been united, namely that the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, was uniquely lacking in care, probity and competence. This is a man whom the Tories, despite knowing his track record, elected to high office. That was within a year of him being voted by the public one of the two least-trusted people in the country (the other, surprise surprise, being Piers Morgan!). And Johnson’s testimony today just turned the knife in the wound. Putting Johnson into power is bound to be a lasting stain on the party, and no amount of vacuous rhetoric about integrity, professionalism and accountability can wash that away. Especially when not backed up by deeds. All this even before ‘Dr Death’ Sunak himself is exposed next week to the icily forensic attentions of Hugo Keith KC. The ripples created by the inquiry are set to continue for years to come.
As if that were not enough the whole Rwanda debacle has been dramatically re-opened and threatens to tear the party apart. Sunak knows the plan has no prospect of ‘stopping the boats’ even if, improbably, it gets past first base, but perhaps he consoles himself that he has found the ‘Goldilocks spot’ which causes equal anger on both sides of his divided party.
If Sunak was ever tempted to call an early election – perhaps in the hope of taking advantage of Labour’s current difficulties over Gaza – then he needs only to look around him.
*I remember being corrected by a member of staff of the British Museum when I asked for directions to the “Elgin marbles”. I know that there is a variety of views about the best place for the marbles to be safely stored, but it seems to me that there is really very little to say in response to the accusation that Lord Elgin, in buying the marbles from the Ottoman occupiers and selling them to the British Museum, was doing nothing better than receiving stolen goods.
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