AS I SEE IT: TERRY MURDEN says that a general election would be a wrong route to take in resolving the Downing Street crisis
One has to wonder who, if anyone, is emerging with much credit from the chaos surrounding Westminster. Amid the central debacle over who might be next through Number Ten’s revolving door, it is those hurling criticism who are part of the problem.
The Opposition party leaders – Labour, LibDem, SNP and Greens – are yelling for a General Election to “sort out” the mess. These are the same voices calling for an end to “instability” and “uncertainty”. A general election will do nothing to scare off those ghoulish monsters that will be haunting the Chancellor in the run-up to the Hallowe’en fiscal plan.
Frankly, the last thing the country and the markets need right now is a freeze on government activity while politicians perform the Danse Macabre to encourage support for more life-sapping campaigns. In any case, the Tories, currently scoring their worst ever polling figures, know that calling a general election would be a classic case of turkeys voting for Christmas.
Their opponents are determined to let the people decide. Labour, buoyed by a 30-odd point lead in the polls, believes it has a magic wand to grow the economy, but has to admit that it cannot wish away the country’s debt.
Nicola Sturgeon, always the opportunist, is trying to justify people power on shakier foundations. She takes the constituency-based first-past-the-post voting system that gives her party an almost clean sweep of Westminster seats and mischievously asserts that this would deliver a Yes vote in an independence referendum which, of course, would be based on a straight majority vote across the country. On present counting she would lose.
Furthermore, and even more mischievously, the SNP is wrongly using the case of an incompetent government as a reason to tear up the constitution. The two may be related but they are not the same thing, and if it comes to putting a cross on the referendum ballot paper we must hope the voters understand this basic difference.
UK government ministers may have (very badly) lost the plot, but those who believe the sorry saga surrounding Downing Street can be resolved by putting it in the hands of the people are crediting the people with too much capacity to make the right decisions. As the American comedian Jon Stewart said: “You have to remember one thing about the will of the people: it wasn’t that long ago that we were swept away by the Macarena.”
Even Boris Johnson’s hero Sir Winston Churchill doubted the legitimacy of the people’s will. “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” he once argued. Mark Twain had little time for all this electioneering. “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.” he said.
The election of Liz Truss after a 55-day campaign touring the country resulted in a premiership that last 44 days and left the economy in tatters. There must be a better way to do this.
Let’s consider who and what really brought an end to Liz Truss’s brief premiership. Was it the resignation of the Home Secretary Suella Braverman? Was it pressure over the despatch box from Sir Kier Starmer? Was it the hectoring from the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford, or the brutal tweets from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon?
They all inflicted wounds in this Caesar-style assassination, but the real killer blow was delivered by the unelected financial markets. It was the plunge in the pound and the surge in the cost of borrowing that finished her off while democracy was still pleading its case.
Indeed, from the suffragettes to the 1980s poll tax riots it has been direct action that has instigated change, not the ballot box. Direct action is driving the eco-rebels, frustrated by the election process. It drives every march and demonstration, from pay to gender rights. In this latest case of improper government, the markets took matters into their own hands and forced it to change course.
The markets have been reminding the political parties for weeks that in the current turmoil Britain is uninvestable. The risk is simply too high. So why make it even riskier by throwing the country into six weeks of election campaigning?” A general election may deliver a change of government, but whoever wins would face the same problems, and offers no guarantee of not making similar mistakes. After all, Liz Truss was supposed to correct the mishandling of office under Boris Johnson. Her election solved nothing.
Markets have already acted as a true check and balance on the excess of government, at least in relation to monetary and fiscal management. Elections, by contrast, feed the frenzy of false hope, self-interest and, all too often, self-destruction.
Credit rating agency Moody’s revision of the country’s outlook from stable to negative, partly because of the UK’s “heightened unpredictability”, should be a further warning against rushing into another election dogfight that will sustain that condition for at least the duration of any campaign and possibly beyond.
Therefore, this is not a time for preening and chest-beating exercises in ‘democracy’ that will merely cause more discord. The sensible outcome would be for the leading contenders and senior figures in the Tory party to agree on a leader who would provide calm and unity and, crucially, satisfy the financial markets’ demand for that treasured goal: stability. In the end the markets will decide who will stay in Number Ten.
Terry Murden held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business