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Does it matter if a few parliamentary candidates broke the law by betting on the election? “Gamble gate” may seem trivial in comparison to substantive policy issues but it plays into the narrative that all politicians are in it for themselves — which corrodes our politics. 

When Westminster looks fifth-rate and you suspect you could do a better job yourself, it’s not surprising that trust in politics has hit a record low. The people “having a flutter” were unprofessional and colossally stupid. Their actions fit with the long cycle of mediocrities drunk on power and casual with the truth: Brexit lies and Partygate, the Scottish National party embroiled in embezzlement charges, the Welsh Labour leader taking £200,000 from a criminal donor, the dubious honours.

If the latest pre-election polls are correct, combined support for the two main political parties will be lower in 2024 than at any time since 1918. This reflects disillusion with the Conservatives but also suspicion that mainstream politicians are “all the same”.

Labour is on course to win around 72 per cent of seats on around 42 per cent of the vote. Meanwhile protest parties are on the rise. The Liberal Democrats could become the second-largest party in parliament if Reform UK routs the Conservatives. But none can be described as grown-up. Reform has stood down two candidates who sound like members of the Ku Klux Klan; the Greens have embraced conspiracy theorists and antisemites; the Liberal Democrats are more mature but stand accused of demanding national housebuilding while telling rural voters they will oppose development, which damages their credibility. 

All Sir Keir Starmer needs to do is watch the Conservatives commit blunder after blunder and show as little leg as possible to have most voters heaving a sigh of relief next week. There are still many serious people in both main political parties — Starmer among them. The question after this election will be how to shore them up.

Even before the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, only 27 per cent of the British public said they trusted politicians.

In 2010, a report by the Hansard Society attributed some of that to a growing disconnect between MPs and the public — with a sense that decisions were being made by unaccountable bodies. It found that people felt more positive about institutions which felt familiar — the GP surgery or the local council — and had little idea what MPs did. 

The House of Commons has become little more than a rubber stamp for the executive of the day since Tony Blair introduced the automatic guillotine, which lets governments cut the time given to MPs to debate bills. MPs troop through the lobby barely reading what they are voting on, towing the party line in the hope of getting a ministerial job.

As the power of backbenchers wanes, so does the number of MPs willing to speak their mind. The likes of Labour’s Frank Field or the Conservative MPs David Davis and Sir Charles Walker, who went viral with his spirited rant against Liz Truss, are rare. Aided by a media which eulogises presenters and despises politicians, the public see robots speaking in soundbites which is all they are allowed to deliver.  

The usual proposals — tightening the ministerial code, properly regulating the revolving door between public office and business and stopping abuses of the honours system — would all help. But they will not address the deeper issue eroding faith in government: the lack of accountability for failure. 

Why has the regulator allowed privatised water companies to pump raw sewage into rivers? Why did officials advise ministers, including Ed Davey, to ignore Alan Bates’ warnings about the failings of the Horizon system at the Post Office? Why did the Treasury write off billions of pounds in fraudulent Covid loans rather than pursuing them?

There is a disconnect not just between MPs and the public, but between ministers and the Whitehall ecosystem, regulators and arms-length bodies over which they have little control. MPs cannot admit to having no control, for fear voters would think even less of them.  

Brexit has put a big dent in trust, according to the latest data from the British Social Attitudes Survey. Remainers are angry but Leavers are even more aggrieved. Some feel they were lied to, others feel that what they were promised was not delivered.

Meanwhile the electoral system remains lopsided. The Liberal Democrats could double their seats next week, even if they get fewer votes than in 2019. Nigel Farage is calling for proportional representation.

On Thursday there will be a lot of the usual crowing over well-known MPs who lose their seats from people who have never had the courage to stand for election. This is what greeted Ed Balls in 2015, Nick Clegg in 2017 and Michael Portillo in 1997.

That’s democracy, of course. But if Jeremy Hunt loses in Godalming and Ash next week for the Tories, I will regret the loss of a man with integrity who has stabilised the nation’s finances. If Thangam Debbonaire is ousted in Bristol West for Labour, I will regret the missed opportunity to have had a serious musician as culture secretary.

Politics is brutal. But if we want it to be better and start the long, slow journey of rebuilding, we need to flush out the unethical, celebrate those with integrity and restore accountability.

We Brits have always been a sceptical lot. But scepticism is healthy — cynicism is not.

camilla.cavendish@ft.com



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