Two questions exercised the mind of the British electorate yesterday. Who would be appointed to Theresa May’s cabinet? And who would follow Len on Strictly? This morning, the identity of his successor remains undecided. But the new prime minister, aware that Len had become available for other work, has inexplicably failed to select him as the new foreign secretary. Instead of giving the job to a dancer, she’s given it to a clown.
I remember when the foreign secretary was a person of some authority and distinction. He was a patrician Tory called Alec Douglas Home. Over the small matter of an Icelandic cod war, he and I got to know each other quite well: so well that he allowed me to call him at his home in the Borders if I urgently required his services at the BBC. He came by car, uncomplainingly and unaccompanied, and on one occasion arrived in his gardening boots.
I always felt that an Icelandic cod war was safe in Sir Alec’s hands. It was possible to sleep easily in those days.
Last night, another shocker on top of all the others recently, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, tweeted that May’s reputation for competence had lasted only a few hours. That was putting it diplomatically; the actual situation was obviously a good deal worse. I preferred the response of the singer and actress Cher who, when asked what she thought of Boris Johnson’s elevation, replied: ‘He’s f***ng idiot who lied to British ppl & didn’t have the balls to lead them once Leave won. Any more questions?’ Say what you like about the Americans: they’re always so engagingly frank.
How did we – I have to include myself here – allow ourselves to be fooled by Theresa May? The moment she became prime minister, indeed some days before, a number of assumptions were made about her. Some of us, desperate for any sign of hope, were inclined to buy them.
The first assumption was that at last we had a rather serious individual in Downing Street, someone who didn’t do deals, who didn’t trivialise the business of government. With a single appointment on her first night, that assumption was shattered.
Johnson, the man who had to be sacked from shadow ministerial office 12 years ago for lying, had learned nothing. Throughout the Leave campaign he went on lying – this time to a British people so intellectually lazy and ill-educated that they were unable, or simply couldn’t be bothered, to distinguish between demonstrable fact and shameless fiction.
His main lie was splashed across his so-called battle bus, that every week Britain sends the EU £350m. As Johnson knew, Britain has never sent the EU £350m a week: never. Half the bill comes back to us in a rebate applied at source and in subsidies. But he went on perpetrating the lie, while the BBC, disregarding its charter responsibilities, decided for its own reasons not to inform the many credulous licence-payers that the leader of the Leave campaign was lying and lying repeatedly.
When the lie wasn’t quite enough – when it became clear that something more was required to swing the result – Johnson then sedulously played on public fear and prejudice over immigration.
In rewarding this man with a major prize, May is either an unexpectedly forgiving type – unlikely given her treatment of Osborne – or she sees nothing offensive about Johnson’s conduct. Perhaps she too intends to play on public fear and prejudice; it seems all too likely since her disgraceful refusal to give any undertaking to the 3m EU nationals in this country. Even Leadsom, a risible figure in every other respect, showed a core humanity with her statement that they should not be used as bargaining chips in the forthcoming negotiations with Brussels. May shows none.
The second false assumption was that the shabby era of politics by spin and dodgy leaks was over: that, in May, we had a prime minister who would play it straight. How long did that illusion last? One night.
On Tuesday, her team worked diligently to create a media perception that bright women were to be appointed to the top jobs. The BBC and the press dutifully published this exciting intelligence; yesterday’s headlines were full of it. The Guardian was so convinced by the nonsense that it ran an editorial looking forward to the 'dramatic difference’ May would make: 'She can, and the signs are that she will, feminise the topmost regions of politics in a way that has the potential to transform the conduct of government’.
Twenty-four hours later, the 'topmost regions’ – her first six appointments, including the great offices of state – were occupied by five blokes and one relatively smart non-bloke. Today, no doubt, there will be some shuffling around of the lower pecking order and a semblance of gender balance. But if you believe that any of this has the potential to 'transform the conduct of government’, you must also believe that the moon is made of cheese and that Boris Johnson has the statesmanlike qualities required to represent this disintegrating kingdom abroad.
The third assumption was that there would be a complete break with the past. Some Tory newspapers this morning are claiming just that. To paraphrase the late but never-to-be-forgotten Mandy Rice Davies: 'They would say that, wouldn’t they?’
The 'complete break’ involves the resurrection of two chaps who were politically interred some years ago. The right-wing dinosaur Liam Fox, who had to ‘stand down’ as defence secretary over a murky 'access’ arrangement involving a friend, is back from the dead in charge of a new department for international trade – always assuming that we have anything left to trade apart from a few bottles of Glenmorangie; and May has managed to dig up the unlamented David Davis to lead the Brexit negotiations. The only reassuring thought about these incurably third-rate appointments is that they will leave Johnson with almost nothing to do; the foreign secretary will be able to concentrate on the one thing he does well – vacuous grandstanding.
From the steps of Downing Street, May reminded her audience that the full title of her party is the Conservative and Unionist Party and made a commitment to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom – ‘that precious, precious bond’ as she called it. By nightfall, with the advancement of the liar, the shabby reality behind the precious, precious bond had been exposed. A new low had been reached. We were beyond nadir into something nadirer. And Scotland had inched that little bit closer to the door marked Exit.