England in 2017
For the time being the election has left the country with rulers that neither see, nor feel, nor know, but leech-like to their fainting country cling. Theresa May has put together a coalition of convenience, formed of incompetents whom she’s too weak to sack, and the DUP, whose votes she can’t do without. Her weekend reshuffle recruited such stellar talents as Gavin Barwell and Michael Gove, the renowned environmentalist, to the praetorian guard. One theory, that Tory grey eminences have demanded she stay on, makes her out to be too weak even to sack herself. May has already had to reassure Ruth Davidson, the lesbian leader of the Scottish Tories, that some of the Orange people’s unreconstructed attitudes on family values are unlikely to find their way into official policy. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, joint chiefs of staff at Number 10, have taken one for the team leader, rather as John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman did in a vain bid to shield Nixon. On Saturday evening, Downing St said that the coalition was a done deal, only to be contradicted by the DUP. Over in Brussels, Eurocrats awaiting the kick-off of the Brexit negotiations must be quaking at this show of national strength.
The brittle person’s notion of strength is to avoid countenancing any lapse from infallibility. Hence May’s bizarre statement in Downing Street on Friday, which contrived to avoid all mention of the fiasco that has unfolded over the past seven weeks. In a post-flop telly interview, recorded after the statement, she tried to get in touch with her human side. She was sad that the election campaign had bungled away the careers of colleagues who’d lost their seats, but:
What I think is important in the Brexit negotiations which will start in ten days’ time is that we have the certainty of a government that can take forward a plan into those Brexit negotiations. That’s why I think at this critical time for our country it’s important to form a government in the national interest. As we’re the party what [sic] won most seats and most votes we’re the only party that is in a position to form a government that can do that, and that’s what we’re doing … What I’m doing today is focussing on forming a government. As I say I think that’s important in the national interest. And as the largest party with the most seats and most votes we’re the only party that can form that government to take this forward.
When she’s in this mode – and it’s not clear she has any other mode – May comes across like a bot mouthing text that’s been through several iterations of Google translate. The dimboat prosody leaves one doubting not just May’s intelligence, but her wits. When the campaign began, I assumed that her intonation of stock phrases was a boilerplate norm of the Lynton Crosby campaign playbook, but I later came to think that he had tailored it to May’s shortcomings. Suspended in obscure fluid, phrases detach themselves like the blobs of gunk in a lava lamp, and swirl, lit up by the odd flash of almost-meaning. It seems pointless to point out that forming a government isn’t a prize awarded for getting the most votes or even necessarily the most seats. What matters is being seen to say something, even if it’s nothing, and never admitting weakness.
One of May’s problems is that the press has turned. The Mirror (‘Coalition of crackpots’) has been joined by the dear old Sun, which went with the screamer ‘She’s had her chips’ on Saturday’s front page, over a photo of May munching fries on the campaign stump. When you’ve lost the red tops, and even the Mail (‘Tories turn on Theresa’) isn’t full-throated in its support, you’re probably on the skids. Murdoch’s hard-right Times had ‘May stares into the abyss’.
Now the abyss is staring back. At this point the PM is, as George Osborne said yesterday, a dead woman walking, while the nation looks on, fascinated or aghast, through a viewing window. It’s a matter for conjecture – the books have already opened on it – how long she’s got before the grandees in grey strap her into Old Sparky. Whenever it happens, the spectacle is likely to be grisly.