OPPOSITIONAL politics — the modus operandi in most countries with a parliamentary system — typically disadvantages the opposition party or parties. When there is no significant demographic divide, and both government and opposition are appealing to the same middle-ground voters, there are only so many policies to go round. A party that is in opposition is faced with the problem how to react when the party in government comes up with plans to solve the housing shortage, cut crime, tackle the cost-of-living crisis, improve education, boost employment, etc. It can scrutinise the plans for flaws, but if the plans are essentially sound, does the opposition support them — and thus bolster the governing party’s reputation — or does it oppose them on transparently feeble grounds and appear pettish and out of touch? Similarly, with its own bright ideas: does it announce them and thus, in effect, offer them free to the governing party, which can then take the credit, or attempt to keep them under wraps, and thus endure months of interviewers’ asking relentlessly: “Well, what would you do instead?”?
Now, however, the UK has reached a place where the Government, too, finds itself hidebound by oppositional politics. It is evident from the Bills outlined in the King’s Speech on Tuesday that much of the proposed legislation has been devised with the Labour Party in mind, in an attempt to find popular programmes that the Opposition will be obliged to oppose, and thus open up some campaigning space for the forthcoming General Election. Pity the King, who has to read this stuff out. But, more, pity the country that has to endure possibly another 14 months of political manoeuvring in place of effectual government. Pity the poor people to whom the Government does not wish to be seen to be pandering. Pity the prisoners, as the broken criminal-justice system is allowed to deteriorate, with longer sentences as the only policy idea — and pity the prisoners’ next victims, as recidivism persists as a consequence of underfunding and mismanagement. And pity the planet, as the Government edges away from investing in sustainable energy sources and suggests to the public that it doesn’t really have to change its fossil-fuel habits.
And, all the while, the Covid inquiry serves as a reminder of the desperate need for serious, grown-up, intelligent government by the best minds possible. Few by now will argue with the verdict of the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, who wrote to his predecessor in July 2020: “I’ve never seen a bunch of people less well-equipped to run a country.” If nothing else comes along, climate change alone is likely to test a future Government to the limit. The worry is that the talent pool, muddied by the requirement to play political games, is too murky to attract the people who might genuinely have the world’s best interests at heart.