David Davies, Boris Johnson, Philip Hammond,
Photo: Getty Images

POLITICS

This isn’t a bitchy reality show. So, why is the government making it look like one?

While the boys’ team at Westminster scrap it out, unsolved questions are stacking up says Gaby Hinsliff

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

David blames Boris for screwing up this week's big task. Boris reckons it was Philip’s fault. Philip has doubtless had it up to here with people who are weirdly short of useful suggestions at the time, but loudly confident they could have done a better job afterwards. And if anyone tries to solve all this by telling Boris he's fired, apparently he'll just refuse to go, and then how are we going to scrape a furious Lord Alan Sugar off the ceiling?

Except that, contrary to appearances, this isn’t actually the bit in The Apprentice where all the losers turn on each other in a desperate bid to save themselves. It's just life in government, where every day seemingly brings a new call for Theresa May to sack someone – first Boris Johnson, then Philip Hammond, doubtless someone else tomorrow – and a fresh reminder of The Apprentice judge Karren Brady’s amazingly simple rule for surviving the show: anyone who thinks it's all about sabotaging rivals, stitching up colleagues and grabbing the glory is doomed. Since only the losing team risks getting fired, the smartest strategy is actually to ensure your team always wins – which means collaborating and letting everyone play to their strengths.

So far, the girls’ team at Westminster seems to have grasped this slightly quicker than the boys. When Theresa May was strangled by a cough during her party-conference speech, it was Amber Rudd, the ambitious home secretary, who hastily led a covering round of applause and she's been conspicuously loyal ever since. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader many hope could eventually become leader, is signalling she doesn’t want to leave Scotland before 2021. When the Tory MPs’ WhatsApp group lit up with squabbles about the leadership over the weekend, it was the minister and Royal Navy reservist Penny Mordaunt who suggested they all calm down because “we will all be in the trenches together again next week”, a pointed reminder that government is occasionally meant to do some actual governing.

The reason we’re all sick of hearing about Brexit or Tory infighting is, to be blunt, that there’s too little else to talk about.

For what will kill the Tories if they carry on like this isn't just Brexit (although progress on a deal seems to be grinding worryingly close to a halt) or Jeremy Corbyn or questions about whether May can carry on after her party-conference speech virtually collapsed around her – it’s giving the impression that the country can somehow tick along fine while they scrap it out among themselves.

The reason we’re all sick of hearing about Brexit or Tory infighting is, to be blunt, that there’s too little else to talk about. The everyday bread-and-butter things governments do – improving schools and hospitals, tackling injustices for working women, keeping people safe on the street and all the little things that by themselves don’t add up to much but together bring about changes in society – are drying up. Meanwhile, parliament has so little to debate that MPs are visibly restless, while civil servants wonder aloud what ministers are actually doing with their days. Honourable exceptions to this rule, like May's plan to build more cheap houses, or Rudd's crackdown on acid attacks, or education secretary Justine Greening's promise to rethink the stressful testing regime in schools, are meanwhile drowned out by a chorus of noisy willy-waving.

The paralysis is not all ministers' fault. It's hard to get a straight answer from an embattled Downing Street on what Theresa May wants them to do when her own future is so up in the air and Brexit is making everything else so uncertain.

But the nation didn’t suddenly stop having problems just because the Conservative party started. Big, unsolved questions are stacking up all over Whitehall, from the fact that even the former Tory prime minister John Major thinks coming benefit reforms are "messy, socially unfair and unforgiving" to a winter crisis in the NHS and ominous signs of an economic slowdown. This isn't a game or a bitchy reality-TV show. So, it's time the government stopped making it look like one.

@gabyhinsliff

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Gaby Hinsliff
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