A Prime Minister, a Pantomime Horse and a Piss-up in a Brewery
Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make silly. In normal times, the spat over Philip Hammond's transport arrangements would just have been an amusing embarrassment: a chance for the Opposition to enjoy five minutes of gentle teasing. These are not normal times. The disagreement over the unpaid plane bill will confirm an increasingly deep-rooted impression of a government mired in chronic incompetence: of as much coherence as the two halves of a pantomime horse, when both actors were drunk.
It could be even worse. Imagine a young Denis Healey on the Labour front bench. The scope for mockery would be so great that there would be a problem: which target to choose. Jeremy Corbyn has his own solution to that problem. At yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions, he missed them all. It seems incredible but it could be true; Jeremy Corbyn might well be stupider and more incompetent than anyone sitting on the Government Front Bench.
If the Leader of the Opposition were half-way useful, Labour would be twenty points ahead and the Tory party would be awash with mutineers. As it is, it is only saturated by grumblers, so the ignominy will continue. PMQs will merely be another instalment of stumble versus bumble - while on the most crucial issue since rearmament, the government will continue to drift. If this PM cannot reach an agreement with the DUP, what use is she?
Not that the Dups would have been easy. They have a view of politics, and their own status, which wholly diverges from mainland perceptions. They are still suffering from a trauma which first afflicted Ulster Unionism in the late 1960s. Forty years earlier, during the troubles leading up to Irish independence, the Ulster Unionists had staunch allies on the UK mainland, and not only in Scotland. They could still rely on English Protestantism. But over the next few decades, England became a post-religious society. Ulster Prods did try to play the old tunes, and were immediately accused of bigotry. As Jacob Rees-Mogg discovered recently when he attempted to have a grown-up debate about abortion, there is a concerted attempt to banish serious Christian concerns from the public square. Senior Anglicans are allowed to pray for Prince George to become homosexual or to mimic the Guardian letters page. Anything else is illegitimate.
The Dups felt doubly illegimitate. Their religion was derided: their politics, disrespected. The English Left has never had much regard for Ulster Unionism and can rarely rise above the level of lukewarm toleration. The Lefties see the Dups as the most extreme parliamentary version of that unloved creed. A few months ago, when the DUP was negotiating with Theresa May, there was widespread resentment on the Left: how dare these bowler-hatted Neanderthals intervene in British politics?
The Dups were unmoved. There is a football chant: 'nobody likes us, we don't care.' It might serve as the Dups' anthem. To them, the objections to their support for Theresa May are merely the latest action in a long campaign to undermine their democratic rights. There are competing versions of modern Ulster history, whose adherents know every move on the chess-board (cf israelis and Palestinians). According to the Dups, there was a campaign of terrorism which lasted for several decades, with the aim of forcing the loyal Unionist population to abandon its British identity and coercing them into a united Ireland. Most Unionists held true to their ancestral vow, 'No Surrender.' But they received precious little assistance from the international bien-pensantry
It must be conceded that many Ulster Unionists tend to economise on charm. Mellifluous rhetoric comes easily to Irish Nationalists, especially when they are sentimentalising murder. The Prods speak English in a harsher accent, and delight in emphasising the austerities of the human condition. None of this makes for glib popularity, but when they are snubbed by Madison Avenue, the Prods, especially when they are Dups, take a grim pleasure at the disdain of those they despise, and heartily reciprocate it. While their opponents indulge in fleshpots and compromises, they hold to a theology of sin and wrath.
To turn from the harsher parts of the Old Testament to the complexities of Brexit, the Dups had two goals. First, to protect Ulster's economy; second, to resist any settlement which might seem to be undermining the Britsh link, even symbolically. To achieve both, which sometimes seem to be pulling in opposite directions, would neither be simple nor impossible. True, the Irish government was being truculent: equally true, Ireland is heavily dependent on its economic ties with the UK and therefore needs a deal.
When it comes to negotiations, the differences between the two parts of Ireland dissolve. They both enjoy haggling like tinkers at a horse fair. But it should be possible for a half-way effective British government to steer that process, think through all the options and arrive at a deal. Indeed, this might still happen - although it is much harder now that so many cards are face-up on the table. But even if there is a deal, the implications are alarming. If Ireland proves so troublesome, what happens when we reach the really complex issues?
We have a Prime Minister with no grip and no authority, a Foreign Secretary with nothing useful to contribute and a Brexit Secretary - David Davis - who is not up to the job. This is no way to govern a proper country in difficult times. When Mrs May claims to be leading a government, she is contravening the Trades Descriptions Act.
Ed Miliband - remember him, and his Edstone? - was never notorious for incisiveness. 'My name is Ozymilipede, geek of geeks. Look on my works, ye mighty, and laugh.' But this week, he was doing the laughing. 'What an absolutely ludicrous, incompetent, absurd, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, couldn't run a piss-up in a brewery bunch of jokers there are running the Government.'
Every syllable of that censure is justified. This cannot go on.