There was a silly story the other day about a company boss who had threatened to fire any employee who didn’t vote Conservative on 8 June. Silly because a secret ballot means you aren’t obliged to fess up, to your boss or anyone else, so who’d be so dumb? But also because the email that the boss in question sent was clearly very friendly. ‘Hi Everyone,’ John Brooker wrote to his staff on polling day.
I moved to Belfast from the south of England a little more than a year ago. In conversations about politics I’m a well-meaning dunce, teetering on the line between not quite grasping the complexities of the situation and misunderstanding it so flagrantly that everyone’s embarrassed. I need to have things explained to me slowly and carefully.
As Britain woke on Friday morning to discover that Theresa May had flushed her Commons majority down the drain, people found themselves having to learn about an unfamiliar party on which May (or her successor) would be relying to get anything done. The titles of the hastily commissioned primers – ‘So, Who Are The DUP?’; ‘Who are the Democratic Unionists and what do they want?’ – told their own story. The Democratic Unionist Party is Northern Ireland’s largest political force and was until recently the principal coalition partner in one of the UK’s devolved governments. But most of the time, what happens in Belfast or Derry is deemed irrelevant to political life on the other side of the Irish Sea.
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.
Jeremy Corbyn’s middle name is Bernie. A friend posted a picture of his Islington North postal ballot paper on Facebook the other day, and there, between ‘CLARK, James Tovey’ and ‘FOSTER, Michael Adam’, was ‘CORBYN, Jeremy Bernard’. It's odd that nobody seems to have pointed this out when Bernie Sanders was over here last week, promoting his new book.
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.
YouGov's latest poll projection has the country heading for a hung parliament. This is certainly the most eye-catching forecast in the election so far, aimed to fuel lumpen-commentariat reaction about the closing gap between the Tories and Labour.
I'm in Scotland for my daughter’s 18th birthday and to kill fish with my son. We bagged nine codling from a charter boat off the Northumbrian coast on Saturday before a thunderstorm ended our fun. In Dundee, Fife and the Borders, the election campaign seems to be some way short of generating steam heat. A trawler berthed in Eyemouth harbour had a peeling yellow SNP poster stuck on one of the windows in the bridge. There are a few to be seen in Fife, parts of which are not merely post-industrial, but post-agricultural. After coming in from the downpour we took refuge in The Contented Sole.
Two weeks out from the election, and soldiers are patrolling Britain's streets. The securitisation response, with the usual bovine complicity across the media, has sidelined politics. Spooks who advised May in the Cobra meeting after Monday's atrocity in Manchester will have presented their best guess about national security, as well as what their political masters want to hear, in cranking the 'threat level' up to 'critical'. Now the election campaign is overshadowed by what is in effect a state of emergency.
That didn't last long, even by the standards of Theresa May promises. Less than four days after the launch of the Tory manifesto, with much fanfare about fairness and a Britain that works for all, May has pulled the plug on her pledge to pay for old people's care bills by forcing their heirs to sell their homes. Canvassers' feedback from the election stump indicated that the 'dementia tax' was not playing well in the shires. What was 'sensible' last Thursday is today a vote-losing raid on the nation's nest eggs.
As a student I sometimes whiled away the longueurs in the library with A Humument by Tom Phillips. It’s a redacted version of the sentimental Victorian novel A Human Document, with much of the text blotted out, and doodles by Phillips. Much later, following his inspiration, I set to work on Tony Blair: A Journey, the ex-PM’s remainder-friendly mea minima culpa. ‘To Bar a Jury’ remains a work in progress, not least because of the boredom of actually reading before deciding what to paintbrush out; one technique is to remove all words but ‘I’, which still leaves a fairly densely printed page. Theresa May’s election manifesto invites the Phillips treatment or similar.
There has scarcely been a time in the BBC’s 95-year history when it hasn’t faced accusations of political bias. But it has been decades since the criticisms emanated so strongly from the left. This is a consequence of the collapse of a centre ground which had long been the BBC’s political fulcrum. As the Labour Party shifted leftwards, attracting an unprecedented influx of new members, its MPs and party bureaucracy fought back. And since the BBC is deeply embedded in Westminster, and routinely defers to the consensus there in setting the parameters of political debate, its political reporting has been skewed against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.
Winston Churchill once addressed the nation's workers in a radio broadcast, 'listening to me in your cottages'. In Tory 'one nation' lore, the mystical bond between the mighty and the patronised unites the toff in his hunting lodge with the peasant in his hovel, a Hovis fantasy that redacts plain facts of modern life. Still, you can't say the Conservatives don't do their bit for the unemployed. Since Theresa May sacked him as chancellor, George 'we're all in this together' Osborne has scraped a crust by working six jobs, including £700,000 on the black-tie dinner-yack circuit and £650,000 for a one-day-a-week gig as a consultant for BlackRock, plus his new (salary undisclosed) quasi-sinecure editing the Evening Standard – on a journalistic CV that includes rejection by the Times and the Economist, and freelancing for the Telegraph’s gossip column. David Cameron meanwhile has been busy putting 'hay in the barn' with speeches at £120,000 a pop.
First, a bit of good cheer. Election forecasts often get it wrong. On 8 November 2016, the day of the last US presidential election, the Princeton Election Consortium ('A first draft of electoral history. Since 2004') gave the probability of Hillary Clinton's winning – that is, winning the electoral college, not merely the popular vote – as 93 per cent. And the rest is history, or at least the alternative version of it in which Andrew Jackson nearly prevented the civil war, and Frederick Douglass lives on into his third century, doing an ‘amazing job’. Meanwhile, Princeton's first draft went through the shredder. So, when betting websites have the Conservatives at 1/33 on to win the most seats in the British general election next month – an implied probability of over 97 per cent – wizened heads can nod indulgently and note that whether there be prophecies, they shall fail.
Despite Labour’s troubles, recent polling by YouGov showed the party still commands a national lead among the under-40s. Among men it’s by a single point, within the margin of error, but among younger women it rises to 15 points – astonishing given the Tories currently lead by as much as twenty points nationally. That should offer some succour to the team around Jeremy Corbyn, and is likely to confirm the experiences of his supporters in conversations with friends or canvassing for the party. But it is also, in the context of electoral success, relatively meaningless. Older voters decide who wins.
An electoral mandate, Theresa May keeps saying, will 'strengthen her hand' in the Brexit talks. The bigger her mandate, we're led to think, the stronger her hand. This is performative affirmation: the oftener it's said, the truer it becomes. Or does it? On election night, will the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, be nervously eyeing the returns from Billericay, poised to fold if it clocks up a Tory swing? It seems unlikely.
Theresa May and other leaders born to clergymen, like Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown, are said to have a ‘moral compass’, a higher sensibility denied the rest of us. But do they? Maybe if subsistence depends on passing off the bizarre as unimpeachable dogma, one grows adept in glossing absurdity. Mere U-turns in policy, betrayals of binding pledges, become child’s play alongside hob-nobbing with Jesus or imbibing his bodily fluids in the guise of dodgy Merlot. From there it’s a short step to salchowing over a burka ban, or signing the Lisbon Treaty in hugger-mugger. May's moral compass seems to have turned into a common-sense bypass.
Finland celebrates its centenary this year. After bowing to the tsar for a century, the Finnish Senate decided the Bolshevik Revolution was a step too far and declared independence. In the ensuing civil war, the bourgeois, Swedish-speaking Whites eventually crushed, with German help, the Bolshevik-backed Reds. To mark the anniversary, the Finland Mint struck commemorative coins, including one that features the killing of Reds by a White firing squad (now withdrawn after protests). It's all about forging national unity through strength.
Some elections are landmark events. As in 1918, 1945 or February 1974, they're called not simply because another lustrum has elapsed but because some major issue requires resolution ('What will postwar Britain be like?'; 'Who governs Britain?'). Brexit is obviously the big issue overshadowing this election, but there's far less distance between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit than between her and Kenneth Clarke or Michael Heseltine, dinosaurs bedded in the Euro-swamp where May herself still languished not a year ago.
It’s a done deal. Theresa May has bagged the two-thirds Commons support that, under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, is needed to call an election before term. The big question is: why did most Labour MPs vote with the government? Given the situation, they should eye an early election with as much relish as badgers do shaving brushes. But no, the ivory-handled bristle has got the brocks crowding the lobby. Less than a quarter of the PLP didn’t back the government: a handful voted against; around fifty abstained.
It’s said that British prime ministers are either bookies or vicars. Some are determinately one or the other, while others think they are the one while being the other. Tony Blair was a bookie who thought he was a vicar. Theresa May – like Gordon Brown, the child of a minister – talks like a vicar and behaves like a bookie. People will talk about May 'gambling' on an early poll, but the point about bookies is that they don't gamble, but play the percentages. In announcing a snap election for 8 June, May will have calculated that, for the Tories, things can’t get any better. Current polls have them around 20 per cent ahead of Labour. May is set to win by a country mile.