In 1872, Mr Benjamin Disraeli (as he then was) made one of his famous savage attacks on the Liberal Party. In it, he famously characterised Gladstone’s cabinet as ‘a range of exhausted volcanoes.’
What did he mean by this? Well, he meant that all the fire and vigour had been expended and now there was nothing left but a large lump of useless rock. It was an expression that resonated very much in the country at large, given the amount of squealing there had been over Gladstone’s many reforms in the previous four years. There was a feeling that Gladstone had exploded too far and too fast and that there was no energy left in his administration. It’s a fairly common feature in governments that they run out of lava. Some do it faster than others. For example, the energy of the atlee government was pretty much spent by 1949 and at least failure to infuse it with new blood after that with the exception of Harold Wilson. It is one reason why Labour fell from office in 1951 after just six years in sole power.
But it is very certainly true that governments in power for a long time tend to run out of talent. People lose interest, or are hit by scandal. They have less energy, as the grind of government takes its toll upon everyone’s health. They also get muddled and confused as the ideas they had in opposition when they had time to think under longer relevant. We can see this in the government of John Major where somehow Neil Hamilton made it as far as the cabinet, under Gordon Brown where no fewer than seven members of his final cabinet were from the House of Lords and one of the few from the House of Commons was Bob Ainsworth.
Have we ever seen it more clearly than in Rishi Sunak’s most recent cabinet? In a comment on the subject I described them as ‘retreads and retards.’ Cruel, even abusive, and yet entirely accurate. The fact that the likes of the totally discredited Suella Braverman, Nick Gibb, Grant Shapps, Therese Coffey and the long retired Jeremy Hunt are in senior positions in this government says an awful lot, and not in a good way, about the exhaustion of the Tories. If the weakest government ever formed in this country probably remains the first administration of William Pitt the Younger in 1783 after five governments in three years had blown themselves up, this must surely run it a close second. I get it is very hard to think who on the back benches might swap out these ministers on merit. Possibly Sajid Javid for Suella Braverman or George Eustice for Therese Coffey, but otherwise this is pretty much as good as it gets for the Tories.
Why is this government so uniquely weak? Part of the reason is Boris Johnson’s decision to sanction a large number of his abler parliamentary colleagues in 2019 merely for telling him that he was lying about the EU protocol – even though, as he subsequently admitted, they were right. But the other problem is quite simply those exhausted volcanoes. There is only one cabinet minister in the current government who was there at the start of the coalition and that is Michael Gove. Some junior ministers have been in for the long haul (we may reference Mr Gibb again even though he has repeatedly proven he is absolutely useless). But even others who were around and fairly senior in 2010, like Mark Harper, seem to have gone in and out of the cabinet like a bottle of whisky in the presence of an alcoholic.
This is exacerbated by the fact that we seem to be living in an age when politicians are generally of a fairly low standard. Why is this? Well, part of it must be that we live in an age of communication that gives an enormous advantage to demagogues ahead of people with actual brains. This is not a UK only phenomenon and can be seen in countries as diverse as Venezuela, Israel, India, the Philippines, the United States and of course in Russia. Our system of government however is uniquely vulnerable to it because in order to rise to be Prime Minister, you have to make sure you never send out a single stupid tweet which rules you out of consideration for further office, or you need to be either bloody brilliant (which none of them are) or you need to have the luck of Wes Streeting that you’re pretty much indispensable for diversity reasons.
It also has to be said, and I am aware this will be an unpopular thing to say, that politics is a thoroughly financially unrewarding profession. This was identified as long ago as 1955 in Nevil Shute’s novel ‘In The Wet’, where he commented acidly that the Australian system was superior because it paid a first class wage. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is paid less than some people who run school Academy chains. And yet while we may be unfortunate enough to have prime ministers who are utterly useless they do at least do a proper job that needs doing. They should be properly paid for it. I need to the appalling job insecurity (which Liz Truss would attest to) and the scandals raised over any subsequent earnings and you have to be one of very dedicated, filthy rich or mad as a box of frogs to want to be a politician in this country. Not surprisingly, genuinely talented people including not a few on these boards who would be magnificent at it, take one look and pass it up. Until we have a realistic understanding that we get what we pay for, and if we want first-class people we need to pay first class salaries, we will continue to have this problem.
if ever a party needed ten years in opposition to sort itself out it is the Conservatives. That volcanoes are not so much exhausted as fifty million years dormant and solidly plugged with basalt. it is our misfortune as a country, that for the reasons above, you look at the labour front bench and see very little noticeable improvement. A party that regards Annalise Dodds as the height of political talent, regardless of her many intellectual qualifications, is a party that is not going to have a major eruption of talent of its own. But they will at least be different and offer a chance for renewal and refreshment in our democratic system. You only have to look at Russia, Venezuela and Iran where the exhausted volcanoes are stupid enough to hang on to power to see what our fate might be if we did not live in such a system – and why the change is needed.
Y Doethur is a freelance history teacher and longstanding PBer