Like everyone, I know exactly where I was twenty years ago when I learned that Princess Diana had croaked. I was in my parents’ bathroom and the announcement came on the radio. My future ex-wife, who was in the bath, said: ‘It must be a play. Or a joke.’ It wasn’t a play; few greeted it as a joke. On a scale unseen since Queen Victoria hoofed the pail, grief totalitarianism raged across the land. News sources reacted much as North Korean state television handles the demise of a Kim, or as Spanish telly did when Franco died.
Where's your dictatorship button? When is a democratic decision bad enough for you to override it, if you could, by personal fiat? Most people have such a button; those who claim not to are vulnerable to a form of the argumentum ad Hitlerum. Others are remarkably sanguine about deploying it, for example when they disagree with the result of a plebiscite about membership of a trade association. They have various button-masking props, such as citing the fact that – in an extraordinary departure from normal political practice – campaigners for the other side (and only they) were less than wholly truthful; though unlike their gullible co-electors, the button-pressers weren’t fooled.
In the fatness of these pursy times, there’s much talk of Henry VIII, the first Brexiter. The tubby tyrant’s serial monogamy led to Brexit from Rome and from Pope Clement VII, then incumbent in the line of apostolic succession that has latterly issued in Jean-Claude Juncker. In an early exercise in having one’s cake and eating it Henry hung on to the title of Fidei defensor, which Rome had granted him for taking a pop at Luther. As part of the Reformation power grab, Henry got Thomas Cromwell to draft the Statute of Proclamations of 1539, which has given rise to today’s talk of ‘Henry VIII clauses’ in the Brexit legislation launched last week in the Commons.
The post-election deal, between a dogmatic and narrow sect in the grips of a 17th-century mindset and the DUP, isn't a full-scale plighting of troths. It's more of a fling, for confidence and supply, between the Nasty Party and their Ulster brethren – devotees of the summer's glorious twelfths, when they have fun socking it to grouse (August) and nationalists (July). Each party remains hostage to its own contradictions. The Tories' lie between their laissez-faire ideologue Brexiters, whose holy of holies is free trade, and little Englander nativists, miffed that the wogs now start before Calais. The DUP's voter base, like everyone in Northern Ireland, depends on open borders with the republic, but its ideology covets a Brexit yet more rejectionist than that of many a gin-sozzled Tory backwoodsman.
Last 16 June, a week before the EU referendum, Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen, was murdered by Thomas Mair. The police investigation revealed that Mair had far-right sympathies and had collected materials on Cox, some printed out from the web. Mair was charged with murder, tried last November, and is now serving a whole-life term in HMP Frankland. Investigation into his life disclosed a man without a job, partner or anything resembling a social life. Everyone seems to agree that Mair was a 'lone wolf' killer, whose espousal of a hate-filled ideology drove him to carry out a hateful act in isolation. But if Mair was such a loner – in this week's BBC documentary on Cox's murder, DS Nick Wallen, who led the investigation for West Yorkshire Police, remarked that Mair's mobile recorded him as having sent three texts in three years – how did he manage to get hold of a lethal weapon, without any criminal background or known underworld contacts?
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.
Well, that came as a surprise, certainly to me. My meticulously calibrated model proved almost as bad at gauging public opinion as Theresa May. Yesterday in Edinburgh I dropped into Ladbrokes on Nicolson Street. There were large pictures of Corbyn and May in the window; all the punters inside were scanning the racing pages. I looked at the prices on the betting machine and the shortest odds (10/3) were on the Tories’ getting 351 to 375 seats. I thought better of putting a tenner on.
So here it is, the last throes of a campaign that began with Brexit and has ended with terrorism. In between, Theresa May’s foibles have blossomed like a suburban cannabis plantation under the arc-lights of scrutiny. For all the cosseting from her handlers, May has looked ever more frail and flailing as the campaign has worn on, which the terrorism brouhaha has barely concealed. May can scarcely moan about the personalisation of an election that she sought to fight on her own personality. Verbal and other tics obtrude. A pet tag is ‘I have been completely clear that’, which generally prefaces either content-free blather, or a false denial of having fudged or U-turned. Her angularity, faulty judgment and sheer want of imagination make her look like a beneficiary of the Peter principle.
This election was made, as Proudhon said of the 1848 revolution, without an idea, beyond that of bunkering the Tories in power and shielding them against blowback from Brexit. Their strategy assumed that people had made up their minds about the party leaders’ competence, and that voters were fixated on Brexit, so cluelessness elsewhere wouldn’t matter (though the government seems clueless about Brexit, too). Hence the uncosted Conservative manifesto.
Brittle and blustering Theresa May reacted to Saturday night's killings in London with strong words from outside Number 10. We know they were strong, because the BBC’s anchor Jane Hill kept telling viewers so the next morning, during the rolling coverage near London Bridge. Central Office must have been heartened to see that Lynton Crosby’s election campaign attack lines are getting through undiluted into the Corporation’s news reporting. Later, on BBC1's evening bulletin, Hill's 'strong' had become 'blunt and uncompromising' from the Beeb's political editor Laura Kuenssberg.