Alison Rowat: Wanted – a General Election now please

CALL off the search, the culprit has been found. In the best traditions of a Scooby-Doo final scene, the mask of duplicity can be torn off and the real villain of the hour revealed to be … Alastair Campbell.

That was the best Nadhim Zahawi, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, could do yesterday as he toured the studios to explain what really ailed Boris Johnson’s Government.

It was not that the boss’s trousers were permanently on fire, or that his Ministers were serially incompetent at worst and plain thick at best. None of the above. It was some pesky, 65-year-old kid named Campbell who was making a well-intentioned Government look bad.

The only thing this Government could possibly be guilty of was taking decisions at “warp speed” that, alas, turned out later to be wrong. Like knowing someone had behaved in a predatory way in the past but promoting him anyway.

The sigh from the interviewer, Today’s Nick Robinson, was enough to rattle the windows. No wonder. Mr Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, can be blamed for a lot of things, but not the current Prime Minister. That one is all down to the Conservative and Unionist Party. They wanted an election winner, no questions asked. They got one, for a while, but now the arrangement has gone the way of four day old fish and the rush to get rid is on.

It is not a laughing matter. One way or another we all pay a price for this grim farce. Government at the UK level is all but paralysed at a time when there are so many people desperate for help, and so much that needs to be fixed.

Yet the absurdity of the situation cannot be ignored at times. On Tuesday night, for example, as news presenters did their solemn/skittish pieces to camera in Downing Street, you could see behind them the other resident of Number 10, one Larry the cat.

There he was, sitting on a window ledge, attending to his hygiene with not a care in the world. A better metaphor for the Conservatives’ relentless self-absorption would be hard to find.

There was much preening going on, too, in the resignation letters of Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid. The Chancellor and the Health Secretary could hardly wait to be done with the usual stuff of such missives (“It has been an enormous privilege” etc), before making their own pitches for the leadership.

Mr Javid said Conservatives at their best were seen as hard-headed decision makers, guided by strong values, who acted competently in the national interest. But the public now saw them as none of these things.

Joe Public popped up, too, in Rishi Sunak’s letter. “The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously … I believe these standards are worth fighting for.” Put that on the home page of your website.

At the time of writing there was no official leadership race, but the idea that either Mr Javid or Mr Sunak should be in with a chance of winning one is ridiculous.

What is about the former Chancellor, a wealthy person in his own right and the son-in-law of one of the world’s richest men, that makes him seem the ideal person to lead a country through the worst cost of living crisis in a generation?

Nor did Mr Sunak seem to have the stomach or forbearance for a fight when his wife’s tax arrangements, and his holding of a US green card, became public earlier this year. Any heat he felt then would be as nothing compared to what he would face as Prime Minister. How is that swimming pool at your Yorkshire home coming on, Mr Sunak? Did you go for red or blue on the walls of the state-of-the-art gym?

As for Mr Javid, despite the wave of amnesia doing the rounds, the public has not forgotten that he resigned once before from a Johnson cabinet, in February 2020. What was the burning principle at stake then, the hill on which this hard-headed decision maker guided by strong values, was prepared to die? He had a hissy fit over Dominic Cummings’ plan to sack the then Chancellor’s advisers.

Mr Javid is not short of a bob either, having made his money early on in banking, though the lack of privilege in his background – dad was a bus driver, Sajid went to state school – takes some of the edge off his current wealth.

While both men would make great adverts for the virtues of working hard and making something of oneself, it has been a long time since either went round a supermarket counting the pennies.

Some of the other potential contenders to replace Boris Johnson, once his greased trotters have been prised from the levers of power, are hardly top drawer. Keir Starmer had a nice line at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, calling those Ministers still in Cabinet “the charge of the lightweight brigade”.

That flatters them. Among those spoken of as potential successors is Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, who “absolutely” thought it a good idea if British citizens volunteered to fight in Ukraine. Jeremy Hunt, decent chap but makes Theresa May look like Beyonce. Ben Wallace, Penny Mordaunt, the list of unimpressive candidates goes on. If nothing else, being in Mr Johnson’s Cabinet should disqualify a person from standing for the leadership. That applies just as much to recent departees. How long does it take to wake up and smell the rot?

Should Mr Johnson go the honourable thing for his successor to do is announce a General Election, air the whole place out. Such is the stench from Mr Johnson’s time as Prime Minister that merely opening a window wide enough to let in another Conservative leader will not do.

The chances of an election happening, however, seem vanishingly small. The likelihood that it would be treated by the electorate, particularly in England, as a by-election writ large, and the Conservatives trounced accordingly, is too great a risk for the party.

If only voters could have faith that the next Prime Minister will be a person worthy of the trust placed in them. Someone who is hard-working, honest, fair, compassionate, even possessed of some of that vision thing we hear so much about – it really should not be asking too much to have these qualities as standard.

But until the Prime Minister goes we can only wait and wonder why it is taking so long, and worry about the harm being done to democracy in the meantime.

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