Theresa May and her Mogadon chancellor, Philip Hammond, are the perfect antidote for our turbulent times, writes Bill Jamieson.
Just when we yearned for a few days peace and quiet, you can’t look away for a minute.
Out of the blue, yet another senior member of the Donald Trump administration is fired by inglorious tweet. You would need the constantly renewing fingers and toes of an alien to keep track of all the quick-fire sackings of this presidency. You cannot but wonder what credence can now be placed on policy statements from senior US figures, looking at the hire and fire rate – a management style more akin to a spaghetti western.
And all this in between launching an international trade war, announcing an astonishing ‘summit’ with the head of North Korea contrary to all previous angry tweets, pushing through tax cuts – and railing yet more bitterly at the ‘fake news’ mainstream press. Never has there been a presidency like it. But never in the post-war era has anger, fraction and instability seemed to be more ubiquitous or more threatening.
In Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel is struggling – again – to construct a coherent coalition. In Italy, the Euro-zone’s third largest economy, confusion reigns as what sort of coalition can be patched up to run the country after the recent election that was supposed to clarify matters. Is there anything in Italian politics that makes sense?
Populist, anti-immigration sentiment is still on the rise, however much cosmetic is applied to create an appearance of stability and normalcy. Angry demonstrations erupt and any sense of tranquility punctured. In Russia a presidential election struggles to gain pace as critics are sidelined, barred or bumped off. In Slovakia – an EU member – a journalist and his partner have been murdered in a suspected assassination after writing about property tax fraud.
What is normal – and what is not? In Brussels, a top administrative post is filled by an extraordinary smuggling in of a chosen favourite in the sneakiest fashion and with the minimum of scrutiny. Martin Selmayr, head of the cabinet of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, was made secretary-general on the very day the previous secretary-general announced his resignation, thus avoiding a proper candidate selection. Amid rising criticism of the unaccountable ways of the European Commission, the status quo is protected with consummate ease. An outrage, say some. Normal, say others.
You do not have to peruse the world news headlines for long to feel a certain nostalgia for the relative tranquility and orderliness here. Scottish politics seems totally becalmed by comparison, barely a ripple troubling the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and a Cabinet that seems set in impermeable granite. And down south you would struggle to recall that Theresa May’s hapless administration has been beset by crisis for months. Its imminent downfall has been solemnly predicted with almost every week that passes. Yet it grinds on, impervious to the blasts and explosions. Indeed, few administrations have turned ‘Groundhog Day’ into such a featureless ’24-7’ twilight zone. The relentless, predictable repetition, the dullest of speaking styles, the eyelid-drooping immobility of her ministers and an endless treadmill of drearily uninteresting announcements: could there be anything more stifling?
Yes: the sleep-inducing ‘Spring Statement’ this week from that most Mogadon of chancellors, Philip Hammond. ‘Nothing to see here’ might well have been his opening line. Do we not yearn for a more active, interesting government? But then along comes yet another dramatic departure from the Trump administration – Rex Tillerson. His spokesman said he only learned he was out of a job when he saw the President’s tweet thanking him for his service as top US diplomat. He was appointed only last year. As if by way of explanation, Trump said his differences with Tillerson came down to “personal chemistry. We got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things.” Evidently.
Tillerson is the latest in a long line of senior officials who have quit, been fired, or eased out by the White House. Earlier this month saw the departure of Gary Cohn, chief economic adviser and head of the National Economic Council, opposed to Trump’s plans to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports.
His exit followed hard on the heels of Hope Hicks, White House communications director – Trump’s fourth. Prior to this, Rob Porter, another top aide quit amid allegations by two ex-wives of abuse. January saw the departure of Andrew McCabe, FBI deputy director who had faced repeated criticism from Trump over ties to the Democrats. Tom Price, health secretary, left in September after eight months amid allegations of insider trading while he worked on healthcare laws, which he denied.
Arguably most spectacular was the firing of Steve Bannon, chief strategist, after a year as Trump’s campaign chief. The alt-right ideologue was fired amid a public backlash to Trump’s response to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In July, Anthony Scaramucci, another communications director, was fired after a series of accusations against then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and for attacking Bannon in an expletive-filled rant on the phone with a reporter. Time in post? Ten days – though he was fired 15 days ahead of his official start date. Priebus and press secretary Sean Spicer were also fired that month. This followed one of the most dramatic departures – that of James Comey, FBI director, last May, who led an investigation into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
A special award – of sorts – is surely due to Michael Flynn, national security adviser, fired last February after just 23 days – the shortest serving national security adviser in history. His departure followed weeks of deepening scandal in which it emerged that he had misled White House officials over his contact with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Other departures have included Sally Yates, acting attorney general, after ten days in post, Preet Bharara, New York federal prosecutor, and Paul Manafort, Trump campaign manager.
It is said that Trump has brought a much-needed bracing style of a business leader to the White House. But unstable and confidence-sapping corporate leadership of this sort would appal major investors and Trump’s own removal would be swift.
So let us count our blessings, minimal though they may seem, for the dull, boring style of UK politics at present and in particular a chancellor who has deliberately set out to play down expectations of an imminent spending and borrowing spree.
Given all the uncertainties and hazards that lie ahead, a sleep-inducing Spring Statement was arguably the best we could wish for. Let’s not add to the already tottering pile of hostages to fortune. And hey, let’s be grateful at the very least that no guns went off.