Since she unexpectedly started up and began to move on her election campaign, Theresa May has looked a lot like a driverless car – one of those vehicles built by Apple or Google that is supposed to be able to drive itself to its destination autonomously, using the vast computing power and clever sensors provided by its powerful designers to trundle safely from the car park to the shops and back without any intervention from a human at the wheel. Just punch in where you want to go – Brexit, via a quick stop at General Election to fuel up with extra seats – sit back and let the computer do the work.
One of the things that really foxes driverless cars, apparently, is when a cyclist glides in front of them at the lights and, while waiting for the lights to change, idly rolls back and forth on his wheels. The car detects each motion as a cue – stop, go, stay, move. Its powerful sensors and processors heat up as it tries to cope with conflicting and unexpected data. Its destination is programmed in by outside controllers. It must continue on its way, even at the risk of a systems crash, or a crash of a more traditional kind. Even when it is obvious to other road users that the driverless car has a problem, it is no use honking at it or yelling at the driver. It doesn’t have one. It just has a destination.
When Jeremy Corbyn sailed past May on his fixie bike last night and stopped in front of her, battered courier bag over his shoulder, gnarly tattooed calves impatiently pumping the pedals to and fro, May suffered the most serious so far in the streak of system crashes that have bugged her software since the launch. The data line IF SEATS LOST > 6, LOSE, RESIGN was in conflict with the data line IF RESIGN, DESTINATION BREXIT FAIL. The biggest design flaw with May 1.0 is that when the data conflicts like this, the default priority is always the destination, rather than the safety of anybody else, or even the integrity of the car itself.
Corbyn’s extraordinary achievement on 8 June is a joy to savour for many reasons: Britain turns out to be a braver, more tolerant and more hopeful place than it seemed a few days ago; the malign power of the right-wing tabloids is weaker than it seemed; austerity is over and grammar schools are off the agenda. But amid the high fives and backslapping, the driverless May continues to trundle towards her programmed destination, oblivious to the proliferation of warning signs, traffic cones, barriers and lollipop ladies signalling frantically at her to slow down.
May’s extraordinary statement at Downing Street after she met the queen, when she spoke as if she had never called an election, let alone destroyed her party’s majority in it, conveyed all the reassurance of your satnav intoning ‘You will reach your destination in fifteen minutes’ when you see the road ahead of you has been washed away.
There are defaults, and then there are defaults. I know little about the architecture of driverless cars but it would make sense that the ultimate default of a driverless car that cannot reach its destination is a kind of master destination – a return to the safe lot of the car’s manufacturers. In May’s case, that safe lot is marked not ’National Interest’ but ‘Conservative Party’. That is why we find ourselves in such a dangerous situation now. Internal logic may tell May that the best way to return to programmed safety is to crash through Brexit altogether. Deliberately to provoke and antagonise the EU, to distort their proposals, to present other European countries as Britain’s enemy, out to destroy us, and the Conservatives as Britain’s only hope, in a kind of hideous, besuited, lying re-enactment of 1940.
Somebody, please, take the wheel. Switch to manual.