Euan McColm: Public service dies with Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn addresses the House, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his new front bench. Picture: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/PA
Jeremy Corbyn addresses the House, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his new front bench. Picture: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/PA
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The interests of the UK have been sacrificed to the egos of two men who now face each other across the despatch box, writes Euan McColm

Do you feel old? I feel old. And modern politics is entirely to blame.

Across decades of following and writing about the men and women whose decisions shape so many aspects of our lives, I’ve always refused to succumb to the utterly tiresome though, undoubtedly, popular belief that those who seek to achieve elected office are driven only by self-interest (though ambition is a perfectly fine thing in a politician when it is combined with a genuine desire to serve).

By and large, my belief that the great majority of politicians are, even when I doubt their wisdom, acting in good faith and with the best of intentions has been borne out by my experience.

Of course, it is possible – often effortlessly so – to make a convincing case that this policy or that proposal is cruel or foolish, but politicians (a variety of human being) are, I have found, driven by similar instincts, regardless of which party they represent. Remove from each individual their party rosette and they are remarkably similar animals. And they are not as bad as all that.

Politicians are often flawed but the majority are decent and driven by a sense of morality that I find admirable.

It is important to be sceptical, for sure; to challenge assertions and test ideas to the point of destruction. But an instinctive cynicism about the motives of politicians gets us nowhere. If we believe that everyone who stands for election is solely in it for themselves, we devalue the role and discourage engagement of talented young people who might have a lifetime of service to give.

Now, however, a few months short of my half century, I find myself struggling to see any good in those at the very top of British politics.

It is far from uncommon for us, as we get older, to romanticise the past. Nostalgia is an intoxicating drug that can blind us to reality. It is a feeling that idealises what came before and deceives us about the here and now.

But, despite all of that, I grow increasingly persuaded that we are living through a time of unparalleled political humbug.

Our new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has built a career of saying and doing what was best for Boris Johnson at given points in his career. At some times he has been a liberal, One Nation Tory, while at others – most recently, for example – he has been a champion of a right-wing brand of conservatism that contradicts prior declarations of belief.

The London mayoral version of Johnson was a politician of the centre ground. But he stood in that place because it was the best location from which to win over voters in that great metropolis. The prime ministerial iteration of Johnson is an entirely different creature.

This version has promoted to the post of Home Secretary an MP – Priti Patel – who has previously spoken in favour of the return of the death penalty. He has made a dangerous reactionary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons.

These promotions are not driven by Johnson’s belief that he has found the best people for the jobs in question but because the best way of preventing the hard right of the Conservative Party from making like difficult for him is to indulge it.

Oh, say chums of the new PM, the reality is that he is a man of liberal instincts, a man who may have campaigned alongside the most disreputable of right-wing populists for the UK to leave the EU, but the truth about him is that now he is in office, he will reveal himself to be a man of the centre.

He will not. Those who believe in a pragmatic politics, one that reaches out to both left and right and, in the process, helps create something imperfect but fair are no longer of use to Johnson. And, in any case, those voters – the type who helped him to victory in two London mayoral elections, are now wise to him. Johnson has burned those bridges.

And so now the great and noble office of prime minister is held by a huckster, a bullshitter, a fraud.

In the face of this bleak reality, the Labour Party should be soaring in the polls. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn should be a shoo-in to defeat Johnson and his freak brood.

But Corbyn is every bit as immoral – every bit as dishonest – as Johnson.

Trapped by the inadequacy of his intellect in a world where left-wing ideological purity is the most important quality in a leader, Corbyn simply doesn’t care about those who rely on a strong, viable Labour Party to challenge the excesses of Johnson’s right-wing Tories.

Nothing more perfectly encapsulates Corbyn’s failure to engage with the here and now than his recent visit to the Durham Miners’ Gala, an event at which leftist cliché after leftist cliché is greeted with cheers from the crowd.

Corbyn’s Labour Party is focused on how the past might have been rather than what the future should be.

On Brexit, he puts his personal Euroscepticism before the wishes of the majority of his party, who would very much like Labour to be leading the battle to stop or, at the very least ameliorate, the most damaging impact of the UK’s departure from the EU.

Corbyn, feted by acolytes as a man of uncommon principle, is the left buttock of the arse now mooning at us all.

We can look back at political leaders of the past – even such controversial, indeed, hated figures as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and make the case that they were driven by an instinct for public service. It is very difficult to locate any such engine under the bonnets of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. They are ideologues – Johnson by convenience, Corbyn by a lack of imagination – whose egos must be satisfied, even if it is at the expense of the United Kingdom’s best interests.

I no longer see the best in those who lead us. Instead, I fear we are witnessing the painful death of the honourable instinct towards public service.

The present, I’m afraid, is a foreign country. They do things differently here.