Donald Trump is in town for the NATO summit, and most of the newspapers today splashed on his comments yesterday on the NHS: “We want nothing to do with the NHS”, he told reporters. And so began another news cycle that was almost entirely a fantasy.
Why? Because he secretly does want to get his hands on the NHS in any US trade deal? Maybe, but the reality is almost certainly less conspiratorial: The President doesn’t know what he is talking about. He’ll have been briefed moments before the interview about what to say if asked about the NHS, and will never have given it a moment’s thought outside of when British TV cameras are pointed at him.
And in reality, Trump’s comments on the NHS – or any aspect of a purported trade deal – don’t really matter. Trump, as we know, is not a micro-manager. The boring truth is that the deal will be negotiated by his bureaucrats – and he will sign anything that is put in front of him by his fellow Republicans. Then, of course, there’s a significant chance that he won’t even be in office when the deal is done. We’re now just 13 months away from the 2021 inauguration ceremony, which could see President Biden or Warren become the final decision maker instead. And any trade deal will have to get through Congress, with all of the litany of interests that will need to satisfy.
Simply put, the reality of a US trade deal is significantly more complicated, so much so that reading into a few words spoken by a President – especially this President – is meaningless.
This is far from the only time the election discourse has wandered away from reality. Think how unlikely it is that Labour will be able to deliver its radical programme, and how Jeremy Corbyn will have to, say, get nationalised broadband not just past the lobbyists, but through a Parliament where he is unlikely to have a majority. And nationalised broadband is one of his easier policies.
Perhaps the biggest unreality of the election is the one being routinely repeated by Boris Johnson: That electing him will “Get Brexit Done” in some meaningful sense. It is objectively true that even if we leave the EU on January 31st and even if he is able to pass his nominally renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement, that this is just the end of the beginning. We have years of negotiation over Britain’s future relationship with the EU to look forward to.
So what does all this mean for those of us following politics who may want to try to forecast events and place bets on the future? It means that whatever the politicians say, if you want to make realistic forecasts, election campaigns are not what you should be listening to.