Neither of those men is fit to be prime minister. Neither is fit to be leader of a party. Neither is fit to be in a Cabinet. And yet, by some strange, Twilight Zone twist of fate we are now in a world in which one of those men will be prime minister.
I had hoped that during a long election campaign – the longest we have had for decades – both men might have risen to the challenge and reached out to a much broader audience than the fanatical hardcore they have playing to for the last three years. More important, I had hoped they would also have taken the opportunity to have the serious, drilled-down debate about Brexit that was avoided during the 2016 referendum and again in the 2017 general election.
But no. Johnson’s ‘get Brexit done’ is as fluffy and vacuous as Theresa May’s ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra. When challenged about a border in the Irish Sea, potential trade deals with countries when we leave the EU, the economic challenges of Leave and existential threats to the geographical/constitutional status of the entire United Kingdom, he responds with a blether and banter worthy of Del Boy or Arthur Daly. Push him on his personal morality and his trustworthiness and you may as well try and tackle and nail down a jelly.
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Corbyn, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to have a position on Brexit. If he becomes prime minister he will negotiate a new deal, put that deal to a second referendum (with Remain an option), but he will, to all intents and purposes, remain neutral. He won’t even promote his own deal: a deal that would have to go through his own Cabinet and then Parliament, before it goes to the electorate in another referendum.
I was never entirely convinced the 2017 election lived up to its billing as the ‘most important election in a generation’. And that’s mostly because nobody – and I do mean nobody – had any idea what Theresa May meant by that mantra.
And electoral evidence suggests that parties never do well when the electorate, particularly their core vote, don’t know the bedrock upon which their policy stands.
In fairness, Johnson’s core vote know that if he wins he will push through his deal; but there are millions of voters (many who would be Brexit Party supporters) who aren’t convinced that he will do what he says. They have seen what he did to the DUP: and while they have no particular sympathy for the DUP they are aware of what Johnson is capable of doing even to those who have propped up Conservative governments since June 2017. Their lack of trust could still be a problem for him.
Labour was able to make some inroads in 2017 because of May’s vagueness and did better in the election than the polls had suggested for most of the campaign. A poll in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph has the Conservative lead down to just eight points (and a predicted majority of just 14). But the same poll says that almost half of those surveyed (46%) would feel worried if they woke up on Friday to find that Corbyn was prime minister. Some 38% said they would feel similarly worried to find that Johnson was still prime minister.
Johnson returning with a small majority would be a huge blow to him. He might try and sell it as a spectacular result, arguing that he had gone into the election with a -42 deficit, but it would leave him at the mercy of backbench rebels. He may well have got all of his candidates to sign letters promising to vote for his deal if they were elected, but he will be very aware (as an ERG member) that rebelliousness is second nature to a section of backbenchers. To be safe, to get done what he wants to get done, he needs a majority of 45-50 plus. He doesn’t want to be dependent on his own rebels, let alone DUP MPs. He doesn’t want every vote to be a nail-biter.
Ironically, a hung parliament with Labour as the largest party might work quite well for Corbyn, because he would be dealing with a seriously weakened Conservative Party (Johnson would be under enormous pressure to stand down) and both an SNP and Lib-Dems who would probably be happy enough with another referendum.
The very fact that, just three days before the polling stations open, we’re still looking at the possibility of a hung parliament (although I think Johnson will cross the 30+ threshold), suggests that the country remains as divided as ever on the issue. Both the Conservatives and Labour parties need to take some responsibility for that, because neither has come up with a clinching case for Leave or Remain; and the House of Commons has proved itself incapable of rising to the greatest challenge to face the United Kingdom since 1939.
But the last thing the UK needs is yet another hung parliament. We are on our third prime minister, second general election and third extension deadline since the 2015 referendum. The two main parties have been tearing themselves apart and the House of Commons has sometimes resembled bedlam. The media has divided into us-and-them camps, neither side believes anything the other side says, toxicity fuels debate, charlatans have been given unaccountable positions in propaganda organisations and the term ‘neutral observer’ has been rendered useless.
My difficulty – as it is with many, I suspect – is that I have no confidence in either Johnson or Corbyn being able to rescue us from this mess. Indeed, if either of them won with a comfortable majority I actually think the toxicity would increase as new challenges and problems emerge. Ironically, Brexit isn’t the dilemma. It’s the failure of our political institutions to respond to it which has fuelled and exacerbated the ongoing mess.