Recovering from years of chaos, are Britain and America finally finding the centre ground?

Trans-Atlantic politics is casting aside flawed leaders, but that's not the whole story

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 24, 2019 US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hold a meeting at UN Headquarters in New York, September 24, 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. US President Donald Trump flies into Britain next week, just days before its general election -- and if earlier visits are any guide, fireworks are expected. Trump is in town for a summit marking 70 years of the NATO military alliance, but his presence risks disrupting the campaign for the December 12 vote as it enters the final straight.
 / AFP / SAUL LOEB
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Over the past 50 years, British and American politics have often seemed like trans-Atlantic echoes.

In the 1980s, it was Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Maggie and Ronnie – as they called each other – clearly agreed on the big things of political life. Soviet communism, in their view, posed an existential threat to world peace. Reagan and Thatcher then offered an economic vision very different from the consensus of previous decades. By the 1990s, it was Bill Clinton and the New Democrats who profoundly influenced Tony Blair and New Labour. The word "new" – in both cases – meant "anything you didn’t like about us in the past, we’re not that any more". Mr Clinton and Mr Blair shifted their parties to the centre ground, as Mr Clinton once told me, "because that’s where the votes are".

That brings us to Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, whose mould-breaking style turned trans-Atlantic politics upside down. And style is the key word. Neither Mr Trump or Mr Johnson possessed an ideology, just a series of self-serving yet successful slogans. Maga – Make America Great Again – looked good on a hat, but it does not exist as a coherent political programme. Get Brexit Done, Global Britain and Levelling Up were Mr Johnson’s similarly empty but catchy words.

Now in the autumn of 2022, both men have to contemplate their own failures to make a comeback.

Mr Johnson failed spectacularly. Last month, he returned to London after three months of vacation in various boltholes around the world, only to be rejected by his own MPs. Mr Trump’s threats and bullying within his own Republican party meant his favoured candidates were also rejected by enough voters to ensure that Joe Biden can claim a surprising victory in the midterm election.

Ronald Reagan and his pet dog Lucky, with Margaret Thatcher in the White House Rose Garden in 1985. AP Photo
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair with their wives in London in the 1990s. Getty Images
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We need not just competence but also basic decency and truth

This week, Trump-the-Grump might, even now, announce that he will run again for the presidency, but his reputation as a vote winner, like that of Mr Johnson, has been permanently damaged. The lessons of 2022 on both sides of the Atlantic, therefore, mark yet another remarkable twist in trans-Atlantic politics.

Mr Trump and Mr Johnson are now known worldwide to have a tenuous relationship with facts and truth. Republicans such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who accept the obvious truth that Mr Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, have prospered. Trump-friendly election result deniers took a serious hit. Meanwhile, the post-Johnson British government of Rishi Sunak is engaged in an exercise of economic damage limitation and stability after the traumas of the Johnson years. Competence rather than showmanship will be the theme of Conservative party politics until the 2024 general election.

But one further theme revealed by American voters might also prove significant. Polling companies made seriously wrong predictions, in part because younger voters – at least according to some strategists – ignore telephone calls from pollsters’ numbers that they do not recognise. Since younger voters tended to vote Democrat, their responses were perhaps not factored into the pollsters’ predictions.

And yet, as both Democrats and the Labour party contemplate how the political winds have turned in their favour, they also have their own difficult realities to face. What do Democrats do about Mr Biden? And what does the Labour party do about Brexit?

US President Joe Biden holds a news conference on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, on Monday. AFP

Mr Biden has been – as former US president George W Bush once said, awkwardly, about himself – "mis-underestimated". The midterm successes mean that Mr Biden might be encouraged to run again in 2024 despite the fact that by the end of his second term he would be 86 years old. As a successor, Vice President Kamala Harris is not thought to be a vote winner. The triumph of Mr DeSantis suggests he could be difficult to beat in 2024 as an anti-Trump Republican from a hugely important state with many electoral college votes.

Meanwhile the Labour party – way ahead in the opinion polls – has tried to avoid talking about Brexit. Party leader Keir Starmer is competent rather than charismatic, yet he too must not be "mis-underestimated". He has neutralised (at least for now) the hard-left wing of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, who remains an MP but is denied Labour party membership. But Mr Starmer’s key problem could turn out to be even more fundamental. Brexit remains both damaging and divisive. Polls suggest the Scottish National Party could sweep up about 50 seats, making Labour’s task in government in addressing the failures of Brexit and the demands of Scottish independence very complex.

The eclipse of Mr Johnson and the potential eclipse of Mr Trump, therefore, do not guarantee their opponents in the Labour and Democratic parties an easy ride towards election victories in 2024.

But the events of 2022 could prove in some ways even more significant. If the shocks of 2022 means America’s Republicans and British Conservatives have come to recognise that their supposedly charismatic but rule-breaking former leaders, Mr Trump and Mr Johnson, have fundamentally damaged public life ethically as well as politically, maybe the complex politics of the English-speaking world might recover.

We need not just competence but also basic decency and truth.

Published: November 16, 2022, 9:00 AM
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