Theresa May prepares to purge the system
British politics is malfunctioning, which is why we’re stumbling through an empty election that reeks of inevitability.
The parties are dutifully churning out policies, but it hardly seems to matter. Labour summoned a landslide down upon its head the day it chose Jeremy Corbyn as leader, and Theresa May summoned half the Ukip vote to her side the day she chose to become a Brexit zealot. The campaign is a ritual, not a debate.
In any case, governments end up being defined more by their leaders’ instincts and qualities than by their parties’ initial manifestos. So either way, we’re in trouble.
Cameron vs Miliband seems like another era. Both main parties are such different beasts from the ones that fought the election just two years ago.
The Corbyn movement has swept the Labour party with fervent doublethink: the leader is at once the true embodiment of Labour values and yet also a complete break from everything that has come before. His followers denounce pretty much all previous party leaders (and most current MPs) as traitors and Tories. Corbyn’s Labour is the traditional Labour that has never existed.
But he who destroys the past destroys the future. The result of this upheaval is a party that is literally incoherent. The chasm between leadership and MPs means that Labour has not been a functional opposition and — if a genie granted it a majority — could not form a functional government.
Cutting across the lines of this briefly paused civil war is more division over Brexit, as Labour and many in it wrestle with whether to defy the referendum result or accommodate themselves to it. Any leader of this mostly pro-EU party would have struggled here, although a better leader might have made a difference to that result.
The Conservative party has likewise reinvented itself, but it’s still far from clear what as — other than Ukip without the spittle.
A little-known fact about May is that she has been a senior Cabinet minister for seven years. But the Brexit vote and the ascension she built on it have wiped out this past; nobody asks her to defend her party’s record.
This has wiped out the future as well: she is fighting an election on Brexit, but the infinite uncertainties of the coming negotiations mean that she has nothing concrete to promise. The policies of “Theresa May’s Team” are that Theresa May is strong and stable, that Brexit means Brexit, and that Theresa May is strong and stable. She is the living incarnation of the Will of the People.
And she is actually going to get away with this crap, because Labour’s implosion has allowed her to reduce political debate to a single issue, a moment, a mood — and a clash of empty personalities. The two messianic movements contesting this election are both hollow. But only one of them makes the mistake of believing its own propaganda.
Corbyn’s Gentle Jeremy persona, into which his devotees have poured their hopes and dreams, is his real manifesto. His defeat will break their hearts and convulse Labour once again.
May, wrapped in the Emperor’s New Flag, is her own manifesto, and whatever policies she ends up enacting will claim their own mandate. This might work for a while, but before long she will find herself taking the country places it doesn’t want to go. Then, the question will be whether Labour can choose to recover from its ruin.
Neither Brexit nor Corbyn came out of the blue, but nor were they inevitable. And their interaction has caused British politics to crash. Our national operating system has failed to process the situation: a prime minister with a fragile, borrowed majority claiming sole ownership of an indisputable yet undefined destiny — in the face of a tortured opposition whose incapable leader presides indifferently over a cold war.
May has pressed the restart button. When the system switches back on, she will control it.