Iraq, the financial crisis, the expenses scandal — all of these undermined trust in politicians. They created an impression of a governing class that was devious, inept and venal. But the damage they did to public faith in politics is nothing compared with the damage that will be done by a failure to deliver Brexit.
Brexit is the result not just of a referendum but of two general elections. The Tories would not have won a majority in 2015 without their pledge to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
A few weeks ago, Johnny Mercer spoke in Westminster on the future of conservatism. At the end, the audience was asked by the host who should be the leader capable of delivering all this and a voice from the back shouted: ‘Johnny!’ It was his wife, Felicity. She’s not alone in her admiration. Throughout parliament, there’s talk of Brexit having been messed up not just by Theresa May but a whole generation of career politicians.
There was a time when you couldn’t walk down your local high street and not be set upon by a succession of ‘charity muggers’ — those relentlessly cheery and chatty young men and women who want your money for worthy causes like Cancer Research UK, Greenpeace, Oxfam or Age UK. These days the high streets are relatively free from their presence and their sales pitch is more restrained. But there’s a new breed of brazen ‘charity muggers’ who want your money — and they’re called your friends.
It is late, on a wet Tuesday evening in November, and I am driving home, listening to endless talk of Brexit on the radio. The phone rings in the car and cuts off the news. It’s an unknown mobile number; I press the answer button on the steering wheel. A moment’s hesitation and a woman’s voice comes over the speakers; middle-aged, well-spoken. She’s almost in tears and struggles to get her words out.
The contestants for the 13th series of Britain’s Got Talent, the variety show which starts on Saturday, certainly showed variety: next to me in the queue underneath the London Palladium are small children, a singer boasting about knowing Robbie Williams’s dad, and a Chelsea Pensioner in full Scarlets. A young researcher tries to put us at ease: ‘Have you come far?’ The Pensioner stares at her. ‘From Chelsea,’ he barks.
Seventy years ago this month, a prime minister led a divided nation towards the exit from what was then one of the world’s most important organisations. On that occasion, Ireland was the country wanting to leave and there was no backstop to hold things up. Despite the pleas of the other member states, the Irish walked out of the Commonwealth.
I was reminded of that moment this week as the budding bromance between the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and France’s President Emmanuel Macron unfolded.
While Britain continues to try to struggle its way out of the EU, perhaps it is wise to consider what is happening inside the bloc itself, not just in Paris where the fumes from burning cars fill the apartments and approval ratings for Emmanuel Macron continue to slide as he engages in a national listening exercise (which actually consists of him delivering Chávez-length lectures to the French public).
The power of editors is comically overstated. I’m struck by the number of politicians who imagine that there’s a hierarchy: that editors shape the opinions of columnists who, in turn, shape opinions of readers. The truth, I’m afraid, is that the hierarchy works in the other way. People like reading well-argued pieces with which they might disagree. Editors and writers alike serve at the pleasure of those readers.
Standing on Warren Hill in the morning mist, watching Britain’s finest thoroughbreds thunder past, you realise what makes Newmarket so special. Racehorses are all around you — there are yards all over town. Every morning, there are hundreds of horses out training. And these aren’t any old horses. They’re some of the fastest racehorses in the world.
Horses have cantered across this windswept heath ever since James I came here to hunt, and 400 years later racing remains Newmarket’s lifeblood.