Britaly, Brittalia or just plain bonkers? British politics is hitting its own new lows
First, the UK’s economy became a global embarrassment. Now it’s our politics too, writes Nick Mitchell
Liz Truss was having a relatively - and I use that word advisedly - stable day on Wednesday. Until just after lunchtime. Which isn’t too bad for her right now.
She had emerged from PMQs relatively unscathed - despite making an eyebrow-raising promise on the pensions triple-lock - and she was all set for a straightforward trip to an electronics manufacturer (where better to unwind and relax?), where she would have recorded a broadcast clip, no doubt vowing to fight on and “deliver for the British people”.
However, minutes after her Commons showdown with Keir Starmer concluded, Downing Street said that her afternoon plans had been cancelled due to “government business”. There was feverish speculation that she may have been planning to announce her resignation. The dam holding back the pressure from Tory MPs had been creaking all week, after all. Maybe she’d just had enough?
What was actually transpiring behind closed doors was a showdown with her Home Secretary, the tofu-hating Suella Braverman. There are conflicting reports on the matter of her resignation/sacking, but what we do know is that it boiled down to the PM’s desire to relax immigration rules in order to boost economic growth. Turns out the UK needs migrant workers to prop up its flagging economy after all.
This was confirmed in Braverman’s letter, in which she expressed her “concerns” over the government not honouring “manifesto commitments” including “stopping illegal immigration”. The Mail’s lobby team reported it as a 90-minute “shouting match” between the two of them.
This would be unedifying in any workplace, but what happened later on in the day was even more toe-curling for any HR professionals watching on. Tory MPs were told that a vote on fracking was effectively a confidence vote in the government, and that a three-line whip was in place. It was a threat: even if you and your constituents hate the thought of shale gas extraction, get behind the team, or suffer the consequences.
But there was confusion over this message, and what followed was utter chaos. Cabinet ministers Thérèse Coffey and Jacob Rees-Mogg were among a group of senior Tories accused of pressuring colleagues to go into the “no” lobby, with Labour’s Chris Bryant saying some MPs were “physically manhandled into another lobby and being bullied”.
His colleague Ian Murray tweeted: “I’ve never seen scenes like it at the entrance to a voting lobby. Tories on open warfare. Jostling and Rees Mogg shouting at his colleagues. Whips screaming at Tories.” The SNP’s David Linden added: “Just watched the Deputy Prime Minister [Thérèse Coffey] practically pick up a hesitant Tory MP and march him into the Government lobby. Astonishing.”
A photo being shared on Twitter shows Rees-Mogg in the thick of a scene that looks like it could have been taken inside a city centre pub at closing time, with arms flailing and people being held apart. The business secretary was later quoted as saying the discussions were “normal” and claimed, with a straight face, that “this is a government that is functioning well”.
Yesterday, The Economist made an astute comparison between the state of the UK and the home of widespread corruption, low growth and Silvio Berlusconi that is Italy, in an article titled ‘Welcome to Britaly’.
As if to prove their theory, last night’s scenes in Westminster were also reminiscent of the kind of fisticuffs and scuffles we’ve seen break out in Italy’s own parliament over the years. Oh how we used to laugh at these semi-functioning democracies.
The question is how low can our own politics go. Italy, along with the likes of Turkey, Ukraine and South Korea, were previously top of the table when it came to parliamentary punch-ups - now the UK’s getting a reputation for it too. And we don’t even have great pizza and an effortless sense of style to fall back on.