Diane Abbott and Dominic Raab didn’t lose their battles because their politics was too radical; they lost because they proved gross incompetence, writes Will Cooling
As we watch two wealthy men who achieved genuine success in elite professions before entering parliament strive to win the centre ground of politics, it’s easy to forget that until very recently British politics was dominated by revolutions on its right and left. In 2016 the Tory Right destroyed David Cameron’s premiership and achieved what it had been fighting for since the early 1990s, as the country voted to leave the European Union. Meanwhile, the year before had seen the Labour Party travelling back in time to 1980s, as admirers and confidants of Tony Benn finally seized control of the party with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
As the Duke of Wellington once warned, “next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won”, because both Tory Brexit Ultras and Labour Corbynites have much to dislike in the aftermath of their great victories. Whilst Britain has left the European Union, and Labour is still advocating for policies way to the left of Ed Miliband’s manifesto in 2015, the people most associated with those changes have been cast to one side; Boris Johnson is battling to avoid suspension from the House of Commons and Jeremy Corbyn has been expelled from the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The temptation is for either side to blame the establishment for having destroyed any hope that their revolution might succeed on its own terms. But what happened to Dominic Raab and Diane Abbott last week exposes how such talk is merely an excuse for politicians that failed the test that victory brings.
Until Friday, Raab had been Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary, only to have to resign after being found to have bullied staff members. Until Sunday, Abbott was a Labour MP, she was Shadow Home Secretary under Jeremy Corbyn, and now has had the Labour whip suspended after sending a letter to The Observer that argued against the possibility that white people from Jewish, Irish or Traveller communities could experience racism.
There have been attempts to excuse or defend both politicians’ behaviour, but leave to one side the merits of either case, and instead ask yourself one question: are these the behaviours of disciplined radicals who genuinely believe that they are operating against a merciless establishment that would seize upon any slip-up to destroy them?
Would a minister determined to implement controversial policies against the views of a civil service filled with their ideological opponents behave like Raab did? After all, it was his unforced and reckless promise to resign should any allegation be proven, that moved the burden of proof away from his accusers and onto himself, and so left Rishi Sunak no option but to ask for his resignation.
Likewise, would a veteran backbencher gripped by the fear that the new leadership were looking for any excuse to remove the whip from her and her associates, behave like Abbott did? Her explanation that a first draft was sent by mistake, reveals staggering incompetence given the sensitivity of the issue in question. After all, it was Keir Starmer’s belief in the Corbynite tendency to dismiss antisemitism that caused him to fire Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet and remove the whip from Jeremy Corbyn.
It is of course true that both Brexit and Corbynite socialism had powerful enemies, especially within the more respectable corridors of Westminster, Whitehall, and Fleet Street. But the knowledge that you are fighting an establishment should sharpen, not dull, a politician’s survival instincts. And radicals have shown this necessary mixture of guile and steel at various points in British history; whether it be Nye Bevan fighting to establish the NHS, Roy Jenkins working with socially liberal backbenchers to create a more permissive society in the 1960s, or the various thinkers and bruisers that made sure Margaret Thatcher succeeded where Ted Heath failed.
But whether it be Tory Brexiters or Labour’s Corbynites, the belief that they were fighting an all-powerful establishment seems to have inspired no such efforts. On the contrary, it seemingly removed the motivation to do the hard work of developing coherent policies, persuading key stakeholders, or tactically outmanoeuvring opponents.
It’s not a coincidence that both factions which once inspired such terror, today look so pathetic, but it is surely pathetic to excuse your failure on the grounds that your opponents had the temerity to oppose you. The people who should be angriest with the likes of Dominic Raab and Diane Abbott, are not those who disagree with them, but those who share their beliefs. It is after all those beliefs that have been diminished and discredited by their incompetence.