Made for TV

UK politicians are generally unsure what to think about a subject until the ITV docudrama comes out


We know no spectacle so ridiculous, Macaulay didn’t quite say, as the British political class in one of its periodical fits of having seen something on the telly. On Wednesday MPs and ministers who last month had been happy to watch the Horizon scandal trundle slowly along were demanding and promising ever greater feats to right the wrongs. By lunchtime we had pledges of blanket acquittals and instant compensation, and the Minister for Common Sense™ calling for a knighthood for campaigner Alan Bates, for services to having been movingly portrayed in an ITV drama.

Goodness knows the government’s sudden grasp of the urgency of the situation is right and necessary, but in that case it was right and necessary last year, too. As for the heroic Mr Bates, he deserves all the praise, but a more useful tribute to his work might be to ensure that when things go wrong in future, it doesn’t require a 20-year wait and a screenplay to fix them.

These days pointless and expensive gestures are how you prove you deserve to be Tory leader

Or perhaps what he’d really like is for Ed Davey to resign. Bear with me. One of the weirder aspects of what have been a pretty weird few days has been the campaign to make Davey, who was the minister responsible for the Post Office between 2010 and 2012, into the fall guy for the entire Horizon scandal. In a past life, I used to have to explain British politics to baffled foreigners, and I beg Davey to stay, if only because of the challenge my former colleagues would face in telling the world that one of Britain’s largest ever miscarriages of justice had led to the resignation of the leader of the UK’s fourth party.

But Tory deputy chairman Lee Anderson cares not a jot for the plight of the international correspondent. “During this scandal, the leader of the Liberal Democrats was the minister in charge of the Post Office,” he told Rishi Sunak at the start of prime minister’s questions. “This is the same Liberal Democrat leader who in the past has called for the resignation of over 30 prominent people in this country who have made mistakes in their jobs. So does the prime minister agree that the leader of the Lib Dems should take his own advice?”

The slight problem with this line of argument is that the list of people that Davey so wickedly demanded resign was headed by Boris Johnson, Kwasi Kwarteng and Dominic Cummings. Not even the ITV Drama department is going to persuade the nation that any of these people is a victim of a terrible injustice.

In any case, even Sunak is not so daft as to agree that politicians should start resigning over the Horizon scandal: once that starts, it won’t stop with Lib Dems. Instead, he replied with a long apology to the victims and a promise of swift action. Davey himself was absent, presumably in a safe house as aides try to work out how to handle this. Poor chap. He’s spent years trying to get people to pay attention to him, and now they are, it’s about something he messed up on a decade ago.

Keir Starmer avoided Horizon and went for Rwanda, teasing Sunak about reports that he privately believes the policy to be a waste of money. The prime minister notably didn’t deny this. These days pointless and expensive gestures are how you prove you deserve to be Tory leader.

As the election approaches, the insults between the two are becoming more personal. Starmer called Sunak “Mr Nobody”, Sunak replied that Starmer “picks the people smugglers over the British people”.

But the Labour leader’s best line is to needle at Sunak’s habit of telling people that things are great. “He’s boasting while Britain is breaking,” he said, accusing him of being “a prime minister who simply doesn’t get Britain.”

I think most fair-minded nationalists would accept that, even freed from the shackles of English oppression, computers in an independent Scotland would still sometimes go wrong

Afterwards there was a slightly desperate attempt to pretend that this was a racist dogwhistle, a claim somewhat undermined as yesterday’s attack line on Starmer was about his past role trying to save Africans from the death penalty. I think Labour will be quite happy to fight an election on the question of “Is Sunak out of touch or is Starmer a secret racist?”

But first we had an intervention from the SNP’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, attempting to explain why the Horizon scandal proved that Scotland needs independence. Again, do bear with me. The computer system had, he spat, been “introduced by Tony Blair” — the former Labour leader is second in SNP demonology only to the great She-Devil Thatcher herself.  He went on: “Sub-postmasters never stood a chance against the Westminster establishment, did they?”

This felt like a stretch. I think most fair-minded nationalists would accept that, even freed from the shackles of English oppression, computers in an independent Scotland would still sometimes go wrong.

But Flynn was sticking to his guns. “This isn’t a plague on all their houses,” he went on, “this is a plague on this House itself, because injustice goes far beyond the sub-postmasters.” He reeled off a list of ongoing and historic disputes, from infected blood to Equitable Life to Hillsborough, and we realised his point: if only the SNP were in charge, there would be no scandals!

At one level, you have to admire the chutzpah. But if I could make a personal appeal to Flynn, it would just be to say that interventions like this make life very difficult for satirists.

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