These comparisons may make a complicated political situation a little easier for Americans to understand. However, they may also produce some misunderstandings, because the British political system is very different from the American. You don’t have to cross over to this side of the Atlantic to find TV shows that explain what is happening. There’s better material closer to home.
“House of Cards” was originally a British show
Before it was a Netflix series, “House of Cards” was a British television series set in the House of Commons, and before that, it was a novel by the former British Conservative politician Michael Dobbs. Dobbs was a veteran of the Margaret Thatcher era and a notorious political operator, dubbed the “baby-faced hitman” by a journalist. He used his experience in the backrooms of the Conservative party to put together the story of Sir Francis Urquhart, a harmless seeming chief whip (enforcer of party discipline in the House of Commons) who knifes his various party rivals in the back as he rises to power. This story — changed in crucial ways to adapt to U.S. politics — was the basis for Netflix’s show about Frank Underwood.
As it happens, Gove, too, spent some time as chief whip. His efforts to scupper Johnson’s leadership campaign with the help of his wife suggest that he, too, is not as harmless as his personal demeanor would suggest. However, in other important respects he could not be more different from Sir Francis. Britain is still a class-bound society, and Urquhart is a member of the gentry. He is a dreadful snob, and his resentment of Conservative colleagues with less illustrious antecedents helps drive his ambition. Thatcher — herself famously a grocer’s daughter, brought many ambitious lower middle class and middle class people into the top ranks of the Conservative party. Gove, in contrast to Urquhart, had relatively ordinary beginnings — his family owned a small fish business in Scotland. He is less like Urquhart than the people whom Urquhart condescends to.
The British do political shows better
It’s no accident that Netflix looked to Britain to find a TV show that had sharp things to say about politics. American shows about politics tend to be sappy, banal and uplifting — “The West Wing” is a perfect example. They usually assume that politicians are good, sincere people at heart. British shows tend to be far more cynical. People who are engaged with politics — including political scientists — tend to be cynical, too, and as a result often prefer British political TV to its American equivalent.
“House of Cards” is one of three classic British dark comedies about politics. The other two are “Yes, Minister” and “The Thick of It.”
The first, “Yes, Minister,” is a situation comedy about how government in the United Kingdom works. In nearly every episode, Jim Hacker, the government minister (later prime minister), makes a proposal for some new policy or another, only to be outmaneuvered by his departmental secretary, Sir Humphrey, who conspires with other civil servants to ensure that the policy is thwarted. The joke of the title is that when a bureaucrat says “yes” to the minister, he invariably means no.
“The Thick of It” is a more modern show, set in a thinly disguised version of the Tony Blair government, where ministers, temporary appointees, special advisers, civil servants and journalists maneuver against each other in a continual war of position. It’s notable for the key role played by the government’s director of communications, Malcolm Tucker, a Scotsman whose inventively foulmouthed language would make the U.S. FCC highly agitated, in the unlikely event that a U.S. broadcast network took the risk of showing it. Armando Iannucci, the creator of “The Thick of It,” did come to the United States to create HBO’s show “Veep” — but the American show is much less scatologically inventive, and it’s on cable anyway.
British politics today is an omnishambles
“House of Cards” doesn’t provide a particularly good model for what is happening in British politics today. Its key character is a highly competent Machiavellian schemer. Gove, Johnson and friends are better described as highly incompetent Machiavellian schemers, who don’t seem to have a very good idea of what they’re doing. Nor, however, does “Yes Minister” provide much of a clue. While it depicts politicians as highly incompetent, it suggests that competent Machiavellian permanent bureaucrats are really running the show. If there are such Machiavellian bureaucrats running London, they don’t seem to be doing a very good job of it.
By far the best model for understanding U.K. politics today is “The Thick of It.” None of the politicians in “The Thick of It” are particularly farsighted. All of them are obsessed with media coverage, and with doing each other down. All of them, as a result, manage to short circuit each other’s ambitions, generating massive public policy problems as a byproduct.
“The Thick of It” invented and popularized a word for the consequences of this kind of politics — an “omnishambles.” The closest U.S. equivalent word to omnishambles is unprintable in a quality newspaper — if you put the words “lustre” and “cook” together, and start looking for a rhyme, you’ll probably get there. But an omnishambles is more specific — it is a situation in which everyone’s clashing ambitions result in a situation that no one wants to happen, that has disastrous fallout for innocent bystanders. That’s as good a description of British politics post-Brexit as any. There’s circumstantial evidence that neither Johnson nor Gove actually wanted Brexit — they thought that they could undermine David Cameron, the prime minister and Conservative party leader, by leading a campaign that lost by a small margin. After Brexit happened, they found themselves in a highly unfortunate situation. Unfortunately, dark comedies aren’t nearly as funny in real life as they are on television.