Reading the current state of British politics

Sunday 25th September 2016


Cathy Newman, Co-Presenter of Channel 4 News, talks with Marcus Papadopoulos about the extraordinary nature of politics in the UK at present and how the four main parties are responding to this uncertainty.

Who would have thought, during last year’s autumn party conference season, that, one year on, there would be a new prime minister, another Labour leadership election and a UK preparing the ground for leaving the European Union? Without a doubt, this is the most tempestuous period in Britain since the Second World War, and there does not appear to be an end in sight. The old expression “expect the unexpected” has been taken to a whole new level in UK politics – and all within the period of just a few months.

Questions of seismic proportions have erupted over what lies in store for the UK and its political parties. Will Brexit be implemented by Prime Minister Theresa May? If not, will a full-blown civil-war break out in the Conservative Party? Will the British economy remain the powerhouse that it currently is, should the UK leave the EU? Is Scotland’s independence inevitable now? Will the Labour Party tear itself apart over its leader Jeremy Corbyn, resulting in some of its MPs leaving to form a centre-left party, comparable to the Social Democratic Party of Roy Jenkins, David Owen, William Rodgers and Shirley Williams?

Whilst these are extremely exciting and intriguing times for journalists, they are, at the same time, extremely precarious times for the UK. That is a reality which should not be lost on anyone.

One such journalist who understands the magnitude of the political and economic situation that Britain finds itself in is Cathy Newman.

Cathy, who joined Channel 4 News in 2006 as a political correspondent, eventually becoming its first ever female co-presenter in 2011, has remorselessly exposed sexism and sexual harassment at Westminster, culminating in her exposure of harassment allegations against Liberal Democrat Lord Chris Rennard. And Cathy has also become known in households up and down Britain as the newsreader who actually breaks her own investigative stories – an ideal climax for any journalist.

Dogged and measured, professional and likeable, Cathy has quickly become one of the most seasoned journalists covering affairs at Westminster – and all at the age of just 42.

In this exclusive interview, Cathy discusses whether the public understood what it was voting on in the EU referendum, the internal state of the Conservative and Labour parties, Scotland’s chances of independence, the future of the Liberal Democrats and if Brexit actually will be implemented by Theresa May.

Q How would you describe UK politics at this period in time?

A This is the most turbulent time in UK politics in living memory. The Westminster village did not see Brexit coming, and now politicians and journalists, alike, are struggling to get their heads round the consequences. But the origins of the current instability can arguably be traced back a decade or more. MPs, on all sides, have argued that Tony Blair’s fateful decision to take the country to war in Iraq sparked a disillusionment with mainstream politics and a mistrust of elites which have overturned the existing order. That cynicism about Westminster was further fuelled by the expenses scandal. The result is that politics has become deeply unpredictable. For journalists interested in politics, these are fascinating times. In 2010, we witnessed the first coalition since 1945; last year, we saw the election of a Labour leader written off by the majority of his own party; and now the biggest story of all: Brexit. Anyone with a crystal ball would be well advised to shatter it now, because if the last few weeks are anything to go by, the future is impossible to predict. A week used to be a long time in politics; now 24 hours seems like an eternity as political careers are made and broken, and erstwhile leadership contenders languish on the backbenches. From hero to zero, from zero to hero.

Q Regarding the European Union referendum, how would you rate the overall quality of the debate and did the public understand what they were voting on?

A Whenever I left the office to speak to people on the referendum campaign trail, I was struck by how many people, particularly women, said they needed more information. That I found surprising as I felt the Leave and Remain campaigns were bombarding us all with “facts” and figures. The problem was that voters did not trust what they were hearing from either camp. And although broadcasters like Channel 4 News did our own FactCheck series, which has been viewed by over 10 million people, we also had a legal duty to report both sides of the story. Remain campaigners felt therefore that their opponents’ claims were often given more credence than they deserved. I also felt the campaign on both sides was dominated by white men, which left many women feeling alienated. And tragically, especially online, the debate too often degenerated into vitriol and abuse. If we are not careful, that, perhaps, is the most dangerous legacy of the referendum – a licence to shout at each other.

Q Turning to the Conservative Party, what do you believe the state of the party is, the challenges ahead are and how do you rate Theresa May?

A The Conservative party is, like Labour, deeply divided, with the Remain-supporting prime minister now committed to implementing a Brexit that she never wanted. It is suggested that she has put the Brexiteers – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – in charge of the perilous task of negotiating the UK’s exit from the European Union. But she is the Prime Minister, and the buck, ultimately, stops with her. If Brexit goes badly for the UK or, by contrast, if she tries to push through Brexit against the will of half of the electorate, she will get the blame. That said, she is an incredibly skilled operator. Not for nothing did she (almost) make history as one of the longest-serving Home Secretaries, running a department famed for ending political careers. She not only hung on, but thrived there, and while her main rivals to the Tory crown – Boris Johnson and George Osborne – fell by the wayside, she was the last woman standing. Her reputation for competence made her the obvious choice to steady nerves in her party and her country. But her statement on the steps of Number Ten, as she took power, went far further than that, parking her tanks on Labour’s lawn, with a pledge to govern for the many, not the few. Whether that can be done, when her government is strapped for cash and bogged down with Brexit, remains to be seen.

Q Regarding the Labour Party, can it be held together and what is your opinion of Jeremy Corbyn?

A If the Tories are divided, so is Labour, with bells on. The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party now have no confidence in their leader, but if they are out of step with him, they are also out of tune with many of the grassroots activists who have the final say on any leader. Where the Tories acted decisively to install a credible one nation leader, Labour struggled to agree on a “unity candidate” to take on Jeremy Corbyn. As the parliamentary party scraps, the Scottish nationalists look far more like an official opposition than Labour. A threadbare shadow cabinet is in no position to hold the government to account. And yet as Mr Corbyn tours the country, speaking to his adoring supporters, all the signs are that he will win the leadership challenge and be installed again as leader, to the dismay of most of his MPs. Faced with that prospect, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a formal split between MPs and the grassroots, or, more drastically, the creation of a new centre left party, are the only choices left. MPs from various political parties are already having those discussions. So is Mr Corbyn a decent man who has ended up, by an accident of history, in the wrong job? Or, as many of his opponents suggest, a devious man who has engineered the hostile takeover of Labour by the “loony left”? Either way, Labour is in no shape to win an election.

Q How has Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party performed in 2016 and do you think it is inevitable that Scotland will become an independent country, especially in light of the Brexit victory?

A Nicola Sturgeon remains one of the most formidable politicians around today. Always impeccably briefed, fleet of foot and uncompromising in her politics, she is probably the toughest of interviewees! And as Theresa May, no doubt, found when she hot-footed it to Bute House immediately after becoming prime minister, Ms Sturgeon takes no prisoners. That Mrs May beat a path straight to the Scottish First Minister’s door spoke volumes about the new Prime Minister’s anxieties post-Brexit. If the UK has sacrificed one union, the last thing Mrs May wants is to lose the other, much closer to home. But it is hard to see how Scotland can remain in the UK when the country voted so convincingly to remain in the EU. Now that Brexit is underway, Ms Sturgeon has made it clear that another independence referendum is on the cards, to avoid the Scots being dragged out of the EU against their will. But as so few saw Brexit coming, it would surely be foolish to sketch out what the political terrain looks like in future. There is many a slip twixt cup and lip, and who knows what Brexit will look like? Until we know that, it is impossible to predict whether Mrs May will succeed in keeping the UK together, where David Cameron failed to stop Britain falling out of the EU.

Q Over one year on as leader of the Liberal Democrats, what successes, so far, can Tim Farron record in his tenure?

A The 2015 election broke the Liberal Democrats. In government, the party could legitimately lay claim to having tempered austerity, laundering the Conservatives’ “nasty party” image. Had David Cameron had to form a coalition once again, he would, no doubt, have leapt at the chance of dropping the EU referendum to appease his pro-European governing partner, at the expense of his own right wing. As it was though, the Liberal Democrats were shattered, returning to Westminster with just eight (all male, all white) MPs. It must have been tempting to give up and go home. So the party’s new leader Tim Farron should get plaudits for simply keeping the show on the road. Not just that, his swift denunciation of the Brexit result has seen the Liberal Democrats actually gain members. And the truth is, where many might have written the Liberal Democrats off, Labour’s woes might just give them a new lease of life – a home for left of centre voters who judge Jeremy Corbyn as too hard-left to take seriously. If Labour gets its act together, though, it is the Liberal Democrats who may face an existential crisis. Either way, it is possible that some Liberal Democrat MPs might join forces with Labour backbenchers. The former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Paddy Ashdown is already talking about a new centre-left alliance. The question is if that becomes a more formal party, who on earth would lead it?

Q Finally, do you think Brexit will be implemented?

A After the last few extraordinary months, only a fool would claim to know what the future holds. No one knows exactly what Brexit will look like – not least the three men in the cabinet tasked with making it happen. There are those who still hanker after a second referendum, on the basis that a significant number of people who voted to leave now have buyer’s remorse. But that seems highly unlikely. The people, no matter how divided, have spoken. However, if the rules on freedom of movement are radically changed across the EU, there might be an argument for another poll. Or, if Theresa May judges it to her political advantage, she might possibly decide to get a mandate for any Brexit deal when it finally comes. Otherwise, the safest bet looks to be an agreement based on some kind of compromise over freedom of movement coupled with some kind of access to the single market. But who knows? And whatever gets agreed upon, there will be those who cry foul – that it is not true Brexit – and those on the other side who say it is Armageddon for Britain. The truth will, no doubt, be somewhere in between.

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