If there is one result of three years of argument since the Brexit referendum on which all sides can agree, it is that Britain is a more divided country than ever. Proof of this melancholy fact was last weekend’s ugly exchanges involving David Lammy and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
At a rally in support of a second referendum, the Labour MP for Tottenham had compared the Conservative MP for Somerset West, together with Boris Johnson and other members of the European Research Group, to the Nazis. When invited by Andrew Marr to withdraw these remarks, Lammy refused. On the contrary, he claimed, his accusations “didn’t go far enough” in warning against the “extreme right-wing Fascism” being promoted by the ERG.
Asked to substantiate them, Lammy cited the fact that Rees-Mogg had retweeted a speech by Alice Weidel, one of the leaders of a far-Right party, the AfD (Alternative for Germany). He also linked Johnson to Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Donald Trump who is now playing a role behind the scenes with European populists.
Lammy’s suggestion was that Tory hard Brexiteers were now indistinguishable from such Continental bogeymen as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. For good measure, Lammy tossed in a reference to “grand wizards” and the Ku Klux Klan. Anna Soubry of the Independent Group supported him.
The tactic being deployed here by Lammy is a familiar one: if you throw enough mud, some of it will stick. The question, though, is whether it will stick to your opponent, or to you. Rees-Mogg chose not to respond in kind, but with a more measured tweet.
“I feel sorry for Mr Lammy,” he wrote, “comparing a parliamentary ginger group with an organisation and creed that killed six million Jewish people makes him look foolish and his comments unbalanced. It damages his reputation.”
Notice how Rees-Mogg always preserves decorum, offering his opponent sympathy for the damage to his reputation. Irony generally works better than abuse. Johnson chose not to reply directly in his Telegraph column today, presumably because he thought Lammy’s attempt to smear him was beneath his dignity. But he presumably had critics such as Lammy in mind when he coined the term “Brexchosis” to describe the present mood.
Does Lammy have a point? If Johnson is careful not to deny the specific accusation, that is probably because it is true. Last July, it was reported that Bannon had been in private contact with him while on a visit to Britain. A source told BuzzFeed: “I’m sure they weren’t discussing the cricket scores.” In public, Bannon urged Johnson to challenge Theresa May. Whether they have been in touch since then is unclear. But the Boris campaign is being carefully coordinated by Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian consultant who helped him win two London mayoral elections. It seems unlikely that Crosby would be comfortable with a rival guru such as Bannon playing a significant part in his client’s strategy. Even if Bannon were as sinister as Lammy implies, Johnson’s record shows that he is not a Continental populist, nor even one of the same stripe as Trump. Indeed, he even dithered before supporting Brexit.
Nor is the accusation of extremist tendencies remotely plausible about Rees-Mogg, whose brand of politics falls squarely in the mainstream Thatcherite tradition. Like many of his Conservative contemporaries, Rees-Mogg is a rigorous free marketeer, though his Catholicism marks him out on moral issues. He is no more a Nazi than Lammy himself.
What, though, about Alice Weidel? On March 31 Rees-Mogg tweeted her speech to the Bundestag, accusing Angela Merkel and the EU of having mishandled Brexit, with the following comment: “The AfD leader asks ‘Is it any wonder the British see bad faith behind every manoeuvre from Brussels?’”
It is important to note that Rees-Mogg’s tweet was not an endorsement of Weidel’s general political views, still less those of her party, which is unashamedly hostile to immigration and to Islam. As it happens, she is one of the less extreme figures in the AfD: one of the few openly lesbian politicians in Germany, she fears Islamist intolerance of homosexuality. But her co-leader Alexander Gauland has argued that Germans should be proud of their soldiers in the Second World War, implying a relativisation of the Nazi era.
With hindsight it was probably unwise of Rees-Mogg to associate himself with a speech by a European politician whom he has almost certainly never met. But it is malicious and demeaning of Lammy — a barrister who was educated at Harvard Law School — to use such a flimsy basis for an accusation of Nazism.
Members of Parliament all need to lie down in a darkened room and regain a sense of proportion about Brexit and, indeed, everything else. Whether or not their backgrounds are Christian, one lesson of Holy Week is that there are more important things than politics. Let us hope that they return after the Easter recess with one resolution on all sides of the argument: to conduct their debates with civility, common decency and an eye to the example they set the rest of the country.