World

Give thanks that we have a Prime Minister not a President

BY David Waywell   /  29 November 2019

As our American friends pick the last of the Thanksgiving turkey from their now chlorinated teeth, mop up some tasty growth hormone with the last of their beef gravy, we in Britain should realise we have a few blessings for which we should also be thankful. Better sports, fewer guns, healthier portions, fewer tornadoes (as well as, for that matter, smaller cows and cleaner chickens) but also a Prime Minister rather than a President.

The advantages of having a Prime Minister are clear. Over here, the day before Black Friday is now known as the day we all get to have fun at the Prime Minister’s expense when Boris Johnson is replaced by a melting ice sculpture because he refused to take part in a leaders debate on Channel 4. You don’t get that kind of entertainment around a Commander-in-Chief. In America, such fun has already gone the way of congressional oversight and Lindsay Graham’s backbone. Had we a “President Johnson”, he’d be giving soft interviews every day from a Fox News set inside Number 10 Downing Street, where our version of Judge Jeanne Pirro (“Prosecutor Piers” or “Magistrate Morgan”, perhaps) would ensure that journalism would be indistinguishable from political messaging. We can be thankful that we still have politics where witless behaviour can still be called out. We can still get angry about politics being spun and democracy cheated. We can all share the misery of the  miserly choice we’re being offered this Christmas.

Our old constitutional system might lack some of the conceptual glitz and capitalisation that goes with The US Constitution. It doesn’t live sealed in helium inside a 50-ton steel and concrete vault buried under a National Archives Building. Nor does it rise into view at the push of a button. It does, however, cleverly separate the job of ruling the state from the role of embodying the state. It keeps the Prime Minister as a political appointee with very little in the way of pointless ceremony to convince us that they’re above a sit-down evisceration with Andrew Neil.

Thanksgiving, in contrast, begins in America with the President pardoning some turkeys.

This President has tested the power of the executive to a point where it has not yet resisted. He has reduced presidential speeches to barroom vulgarities; flouted the rules around ennoblements; left vacancies open throughout government and relied on “acting” secretaries. Then there’s his work/leisure/golf imbalance and the way he has ditched the White House press conference in favour of tweeting out his quasi-regal proclamations. He ignores Congressional subpoenas; puts family members into government posts; uses his properties for government business; destroys notes from meetings with hostile foreign leaders; uses his personal lawyer to conduct a shadow foreign policy; overrules his military in everything military; and that’s before we even get to porn stars and Michael Cohen’s three-year stretch.

It is enough to make you thankful for what we have in an unwritten constitution here where momentary lapses of sanity can be settled almost the moment a Rees-Mogg suggests them. Whether you agree or disagree with the judgement of the UK’s Supreme Court regarding the Prime Minister’s right to prorogue parliament, what can’t be questioned is the speed with which they dealt with the matter. America’s system would struggle to resolve such problems inside a decade. Just ask Americans if they think a defeated Trump would yield the White House next year without lodging an appeal with the courts.

We British have two weeks left to decide our next government, knowing, as we do, that whatever the result, our politics will not slide into two years of the usual Stateside sanctimony. We won’t be electing a person with a theme tune that plays every time they enter a room. They won’t become the living personification of the state, whose power resides not simply with the people but in a position sanctified by a written word. We will be electing a Prime Minister who will last as long as tolerated, irrespective of party rules or the Fixed Terms Parliament Act. As the example of Richard Nixon suggests, a bad president lingers until that president thinks otherwise. Only two have ever been impeached and neither were ordered from office. Even the power to remove a president from office appears to remain entirely a matter of presidential fiat.

Next week, the House of Representatives will begin to test Donald Trump’s excesses. The impeachment process will move to the Judiciary Committee and Democrats will try to explain to the American audience why the acts uncovered by the Intelligence Committee amount to “Treason, Bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours”. It’s sure to be lengthy, riveting to political, legal, and constitutional junkies, but unlikely to change Republican minds. It’s not just that Trump’s political destiny is bound up with that of Republicans. The role of President holds such a place in the American mind that dislodging one run against their instincts.

Prime Ministers, on the other hand, exist amid the turmoil of arguments, insults, praise, and recriminations. Politics remains a game embroiled in clever strategy and rank stupidity, both of which produce unintended consequences, good and bad. Boris Johnson, for example, is showing either a sadistic willingness to “play the BBC”, to use John McDonnell’s words, or is running scared of the media, fearing that whatever he does or says will erode his substantial lead in the polls. Neither looks particularly clever, meaning we have another general election that’s predicated on human weakness. But that is how it always is. Our elections are often hard to predict given the Prime Minister’s power diminishes amid the practicalities of shuffling up driveways to be photographed pushing leaflets through letterboxes.

And in the unlikely event that Boris Johnson does avoid the scrutiny of the BBC’s Andrew Neil – and, in fact, the longer he leaves it, the more sense it makes that he does skip it – it will not go unnoticed by voters. Attempts to dictate the terms of the interview or bully the media with threats around the Channel 4 license are more likely to cause wounds that are entirely self-inflicted. Even if this crude messaging works with some, they should be toxic to anybody who rightly fears the worst excesses of Trumpish populism appearing over here. Nobody, irrespective of their political colour, should allow the “enemies of the people” rhetoric to establish roots, even in a form as mild as Michael Gove appearing at the Channel 4 studios to make what appeared to be a reasonable point about inclusion. The message delivered politely was also an attempt to portray a media establishment obstructing the Tory message. That, simply, is wrong and dangerous.

Johnson, thank goodness, is not a President who can use the bully pulpit to score political points or raise himself above the fray. He fights the election on the same terms as the other candidates or he should not fight it at all. That is still how general elections and fought and won in this country and it is something for which we should all be thankful.


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