It is not news that a Conservative cabinet minister has a low opinion of the leader of the Labour party. The florid phrases that Boris Johnson used to express his disapproval of Jeremy Corbyn today elevated his intervention only from banal to diverting. Yet the BBC’s Today programme propelled the words “mutton-headed mugwump” to the lead item in their morning headlines.
The alliterative abuse eclipsed interesting things that Mr Johnson said in an interview: his refusal to commit to Theresa May’s numerical targets for reducing migration, for example, and his readiness to commit British troops to military action in Syria without parliamentary approval. Mr Johnson’s felicitous phrasemongery is a tactic to avoid scrutiny and disarm critics. Ideally it would be ignored, above all by Labour, who need to talk about policy and not be drawn into squabbles over personality. But the confection of news out of a meaningless insult was too egregious a lapse in Westminster’s efforts to conduct politics sensibly to pass without comment. It is symptomatic of a dysfunction in the conduct of British elections: a process that is meant to advertise policy choices to voters looks ever more like an exercise in the deliberate suffocation of ideas.
The Conservative strategy is to configure the national debate as a referendum on Mr Corbyn’s fitness for office. The character of the opposition leader is a valid topic in the campaign, but not the only one. And when there is every indication that Mrs May will be prime minister after 8 June, it is her intentions that require the most scrutiny.
The setting out of rival propositions in a way likely to inform or excite public opinion has not been a memorable feature of recent major elections. The EU referendum did not greatly expand public understanding of European issues, as a survey published this week by the Hansard Society attests. Nor, despite a high turnout, does it appear to have encouraged greater participation. The proportion of people claiming an interest in and knowledge of politics has declined by four and six percentage points respectively.
Shabby tactics are as old as politics itself, and it would be wrong to imagine a golden age of Socratic dialogue before the arrival of modern spin doctors and attack ads on Facebook. Yet the shrinkage of policy debate conducted on a commonly acknowledged basis of fact feels suddenly acute. The leave campaign was a case study in the power of wilful obfuscation and sheer mendacity to achieve a political goal. In his radio interview today Mr Johnson defended the claim, emblazoned on the side of a referendum battlebus, that £350m a week of public money was spent on EU membership and would, post-Brexit, be available for the health service instead. As Sir Andrew Dilnot, then chair of the UK Statistics Authority, noted in a letter to Vote Leave in May 2016, that pledge was “potentially misleading”. The £350m figure took no account of British rebates and other financial benefits flowing back to the UK as part of its EU arrangements. A less diplomatic account of the same stunt would describe Mr Johnson’s NHS pledge as a lie.
Sir David Norgrove, Sir Andrew’s successor, has written to the leaders of all UK parties urging them to be rigorous in their use of official statistics during the campaign, lamenting their misuse in the past in a way that “causes confusion and damages trust”. The experience of recent years does not give cause for optimism on that front, still less the conduct of the general election campaign so far.
Brexit-hungry Conservatives refuse to acknowledge or repent for past offences against honesty and are now seeking a parliamentary mandate with a strategy built on the avoidance of proper policy discussion. The Conservatives have an obvious interest in a campaign that flits from trivia to personality and back again. The country has a collective interest in there being a debate that is more serious and substantial.