Editor’s Note: Alastair Campbell is a British writer, journalist and political aide. He was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s director of communications. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Of the many elections I have covered in my time as a political journalist or worked in as a campaigner and strategist, the current UK general election is perhaps the weirdest, the most surreal, I have ever known.
If any readers outside the UK were unaware that we are even having one, fear not: you are far from being alone. Indeed, the seeming lack of international interest in the election is one of the many factors making it so strange.
The BBC recently ran a piece on just how little attention it is getting in the US, by comparison with the presidential election in France, for example, where Emmanuel Macron v. Marine Le Pen commanded attention around the globe for weeks.
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May v. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn seems to be arousing widespread indifference by comparison. Even in the UK, when the two were interviewed back-to-back on live TV earlier this week, May having refused to go head-to-head, this “great showdown” pulled in only 2.5 million viewers. A showbiz talent show broadcast at the same time was watched by over three times as many.
So what is going on? Is it just that the world has to digest the daily outpourings of Donald Trump and the scandals engulfing his Administration and cannot cope with any more political news? Or does it say something about Britain becoming less interesting and less relevant to the world?
I fear it is the latter. Though Britain’s vote to leave the European Union may have seemed in tune with these populist, Trumpian times, the US remains a superpower, whoever is at the helm.
Britain, on the other hand, has signaled not merely its own insularity, but with it our own future decline, reflected in the falling value of sterling – and now in the falling interest in our politics.
When the election was called, the Russians were asked – sign of the times – whether they intended to hack and misinform their way into this one as they did the American and French elections. A Kremlin spokesman was possibly for once telling the truth when he said “we have no interest in the British election.”
Brexit hardly discussed
There was also something shaming about seeing German Chancellor Angela Merkel lump Brexit Britain in with Trump’s America in saying these former great allies of her country were no longer “reliable.”
But the most surreal thing of all is the extent to which Brexit has hardly been discussed, even though the election was called because of it and May feeling she needed a bigger majority to get her version of hard Brexit through Parliament.
In the TV showdown, both leaders got a couple of perfunctory questions on Brexit, then back they went to the economy, security, health, education, social care, what you might call the bread and butter issues.
Yet that falling pound is not some technical adjustment to what happened last June in the referendum. It is an indication of what the world thinks is going to happen to the British economy – it is going to shrink.
Both main parties are showering the electorate with promises of extra money for this, that and the other, and the Institute of Fiscal Studies has suggested neither of them have properly costed their promises.
What’s more the costings don’t even take into account the Brexit economic shrinkage, making the promises even less reliable and credible than they already are.
During this campaign, it has felt at times like two competing visions of the past – Labour’s 70s v the Tories’$2 50s – with issues like climate change and the environment, robotics and artificial intelligence, the impact of technology on the labor market, what public services for young and old will look like in the future, barely featuring on the agenda of politicians or the media.
An election ought to be the time when different approaches to the same questions are hammered out on the anvil of debate and campaigning. Yet though everyone is agreed Brexit is the single most important UK decision of our lifetime, Corbyn seems determined that Brexit should not be allowed anywhere close to center stage, and we are not one scintilla the wiser as to what May’s Brexit plan really is.
’A weak and wobbly’ campaign
We are still being asked to take it all on trust – from the woman who allegedly fought for Remain but has since become an extreme Leaver; who several times flatly ruled out a snap election and then called one; whose policies on tax fell apart within days of the Budget being presented to Parliament, and whose policies on social care, the big surprise in her manifesto, fell apart within days of being launched.
“Strong and stable government” has been her sound-bite of choice, but her campaign has been weak and wobbly in the extreme, and the EU’s 27 leaders have noticed. She cannot even fight on the economy, having reduced Chancellor Philip Hammond to the gruesome role of the man who’ll be first to get sacked if she wins day after day in the press.
She has sought to give a national purpose to voting Tory by her robotic repetition of the line that “every vote will strengthen my hand in the negotiations.” This is nonsense, almost on a par with the lies of the Leave campaign, like the £350m a week extra for the National Health Service promised by Boris Johnson, whose reward for the lie was to be promoted by Theresa May to the office of Foreign Secretary.
If negotiating strength was dictated by the size of Parliamentary majority, Angela Merkel would be the weakest in Europe, not the strongest, given she has never had a majority for her CDU Party.
The longer this campaign limps on to a conclusion next week, the clearer it becomes that the real reasons May called it were nothing to do with the stated motive of seeking to unite the country around Brexit when Parliament was supposedly trying to tear her plans apart (I wish).
Chief among the real reasons is that she knows the Brexit negotiations will be very difficult, and that she will either end up with a bad deal or no deal leading to us crashing out and into the WTO trade rules. Deep down, she knows that her Brexit minister David Davis’ claim that Britain can get “the exact same benefits” from a trade deal with the EU as we have from membership of the single market and the Customs Union is impossible to achieve. She wants to get a bigger majority, with more ideological hard Brexit Tories on board, for when the whole thing unravels, and the economy shrinks.
The second stated reason is that at the time she called the election, Labour and Jeremy Corbyn’s ratings were so low that a landslide looked inevitable. But as her campaign has unraveled, he has fought much better than he was expected to.
She became Prime Minister by being underestimated by her opponents inside the Tory Party, such as her predecessor David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne. It seems strange, then, that she seems to be making the same mistake with her main opponent now.
UK politics by comparison
Set alongside the gargantuan, horrifically mesmerizing personality of Trump, the charisma and energy of Macron, the steadfastness and longevity of Merkel, even the scariness of Putin, our politics comes over as being somewhat piddling by comparison.
The Tories sought to build the entire campaign around Theresa May, the first known case of seeking to develop a personality cult around someone known for not really having one. It all adds to the weirdness.
I remember former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder once casting his eye over a table full of headlines in British newspapers, and saying there was something “weird about a country that has papers like yours.” He had a point.
But could it be that the weirdness Schroeder witnessed, our aggressive, screaming media culture, is now supplemented by something even weirder: a great democracy like Britain having an election in which, if “none of the above” were on the ballot, it would likely win by the landslide Mrs May hubristically thought was hers for the taking.
Maybe this, allied to Britain turning away from the world, is what is making the world look away from what May calls the most important election of our lifetime.