AS SOON AS I emerged from the cave on the first Tuesday after Easter, my phone started to ping with missed calls and urgent texts. Would I like to comment on the breaking news? Could I be interviewed live on the radio from my mobile?
Perhaps those of us who make a living from observing the political scene shouldn’t go down caves in the first place. But it had seemed like a quiet day was in prospect. Few people were back at work after the Easter holidays and it was the last chance to show my nephews the extraordinary works of art that are on show near where we were staying.
The Chauvet caves in southern France are home to the first-known examples of human art anywhere in the world. The oldest of the paintings have been dated at 36,000 years old. And while the originals are sealed away from the damage that human breath and even torchlight can inflict, the French government has built a replica of such astonishing accuracy that from the moment you step inside, your senses convince you that are inside a genuine cave adorned with the most remarkable images.
These are no stick figures, crudely drawn by uncivilised hands. There is perspective and a sense of movement that brings the pictures alive. What you see are the wild beasts that roamed this part of Europe so long ago. Tigers and lions, bison and mammoths, as well as more familiar horses and deer.
And these wild animals are seen doing what wild animals do, preying on each other and hunting down the weakest for the kill.
It struck me that the news I was being asked to comment upon wasn’t so very different. It was an example of basic instinct, of the strong sensing weakness and deciding that this was the time to strike.
The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, had announced that there was to be a UK general election seven weeks later. It took many by surprise although I had to resist the temptation to boast about my prescience. That I had been privately predicting just such a move by the recently installed Conservative PM is evidence of no more than my own sense of brutal cunning, which may not be such an attractive attribute. If I had been in her shoes—a highly unlikely eventuality given the famously colourful footwear that has become her trademark—I would have done the same thing.
The reason May’s move took so many by surprise is actually threefold. First of all, there was absolutely no need for an election. The Conservatives had won a majority in the House of Commons only two years previously. Second, there is a relatively novel piece of legislation called the Fixed Term Parliament Act, designed to prevent a capricious prime minister going to the country just because it suits them. Parliaments are supposed to run for the full five-year term. And thirdly, Theresa May had said repeatedly that she had no intention of calling an election.
She went ahead anyway because while there was no need for an election, there was an obvious benefit to her in having one. She calculated, quite rightly, that if she dared the opposition parties to go along with it, they wouldn’t want to look scared of the fight and so wouldn’t use the Act to frustrate her. And she said with a straight face that she had had only changed her mind and broken her pledge because the circumstances had changed.
Right from the start, May posed the choice before the electorate as the starkest possible one— between her leadership and the ineffective opposition leader
It was baloney but she got away with it as she knew she would.
And so, on June 8th, the British people will be going to the polls in an election that nobody but May and her colleagues wanted. From the moment she fired the starting gun, it was clear she was going to win. If it hadn’t been, she wouldn’t have taken the risk. The only question was how big her majority would be.
After several weeks of rather lacklustre campaigning, however, more questions have arisen. Questions that have made this unnecessary election a good deal more uncomfortable than May had anticipated.
She wanted the election to be about two things. Brexit and leadership. Her flimsy excuse for breaking her word was that her relatively small majority made it harder for her to get the best deal in the negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union. Never mind that in every vote so far, she had sailed through with very comfortable majorities.
And right from the start, she posed the choice before the electorate as the starkest possible one—between her leadership and the alternative, a weak and ineffective opposition leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. The strong going in for the kill.
Her hope, and that of much of her party, was not just to crush Corbyn at the polls but to render his party unelectable for decades, if not forever. And at first, it seemed she might succeed. That, for a prime minister who had no mandate of her own having being jettisoned into the job following the resignation of her predecessor, was a prize worth going for.
She may yet get her wish. That is for the electorate to decide. It is true that Corbyn looks more like an amiable geography teacher than a prime minister in waiting. In a confidence vote last year, some 80 per cent of his own members of parliament declared him unfit for the highest office. Only the membership in the country, like him significantly to the left of the parliamentary party, kept the faith and duly re-elected him as leader.
Why, asks May, should the country trust him if his own MPs do not? It’s a fair question.
Corbyn has been on the far left of politics all his life—he’s now 68 years old. His views are consistent and genuinely held. He refuses to apologise for or to trim his opinions. He eschews the traditional aggressive Punch and Judy style of Westminster politics and people like and respect that.
What most voters don’t like are the views themselves. Britain has never been a country much enamoured of socialism. Labour has only ever won under centrist, modernising leaders. Corbyn, by contrast, is a socialist of the old school. And he has kept some dubious company down the years, welcoming as friends apologists for the IRA and Hamas, although he insists he has always been against the use of violence. Labour policy is to support the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, but Corbyn has made it patently clear he would never use it, making it redundant should he ever become PM.
Theresa May, on the other hand, is the kind of leader the British tend to like. No-nonsense, pragmatic and apparently steely of temperament. She describes her offer to the country as ‘strong and stable leadership’, a phrase she has repeated so often that it has become a bit of a standing joke. Her loyal lieutenants now struggle to repeat it with a straight face.
Things started to go wrong for May from early on. The media, and by all accounts much of the electorate, accepted her central premise straight away. They agreed that Corbyn wasn’t up to the job and never pretended that he was in contention. So instead of an election framed as a choice between strength and weakness, it became something of a referendum on Theresa May herself.
Britain has never been much enamoured of socialism. Labour has only won under modernising leaders. Corbyn, by contrast, is a socialist of the old school
Her name is everywhere. On every poster, in every broadcast, on every election leaflet pushed through every front door in the land. Very often the name of her party, the Conservatives, is nowhere at all to be seen. She wants her own, personal mandate, to strengthen her hand not so much in negotiations over Brexit but in the Conservative Party itself. Even her most senior ministers—the Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer—have been denied a public promise that they’ll keep their jobs if she wins.
Everything now is at the will of Theresa May. And as the election campaign has progressed, it has become increasingly obvious that she is not as good as she clearly believes she is.
While happy to regurgitate her chosen mantra of ‘strong and stable leadership’, she has refused to elaborate on what that actually means. Strong in pursuit of what? And how does she propose to offer stability when the country is about to undergo the biggest upheaval in its history since the Second World War?
Come what may, May won’t say.
If she has a negotiating strategy for Brexit, after weeks of campaigning we are none the wiser what it might be. The nearest we have got is the assertion that no deal with the EU is better than a bad deal, a proposition as vacuous as it is misleading.
In interview after interview, she has insisted on keeping her cards so close to her chest that the suspicion naturally grows that what she is actually concealing is a very bad hand indeed.
Her strategy, it seems, is to get through to polling day with a look of rigid determination on a face as hard to read as the Sphinx. When she wins, as she surely will, she can claim her mandate but it will be a mandate so personal that it amounts to little more than ‘what Theresa says goes’. She is asking for a blank cheque and, quite rightly, that makes many people— myself included—very uneasy.
Because by calling the election now, May has effectively precluded any democratic block on a disastrous Brexit deal, or the equally disastrous absence of one. Britain could crash out of the European Union in two years’ time with catastrophic consequences for our economy and our place in the world and there would be nothing anybody could do about it. The Conservatives won’t have to face the electorate again until 2022 by which time it will be far too late.
Her unwillingness to answer some of the really difficult questions that have such a crucial bearing on the future direction of the country has undoubtedly contributed to a narrowing of the race. So has the lacklustre performance of the centrist Liberal Democrats and the collapse of the far-right UK Independence Party as an electoral force. The Conservatives are in many ways UKIP in all but name leaving the rabidly anti-European party, under a new and inexperienced leader, with little left to say.
As a result, the anti-Conservative vote, which remains substantial, appears to be coalescing around the Labour Party, in spite of its unprepossessing leader. The campaign has not gone well for the Conservatives. May was forced into a partial U-turn on one of her key manifesto policies when millions of older voters realised it could mean them paying vastly more for their social care if they can no longer look after themselves.
BACKTRACKING ON A key policy is not the usual hallmark of a strong leader. And while the appalling terrorist attack on a concert hall in Manchester, which left 22 people dead, led to a brief suspension of campaigning, once the electoral battle was re-joined it was clear that the supposedly tough former home secretary, now PM, had difficult questions to answer about the cuts in police numbers under her direction.
At the beginning of this week the two leaders faced their toughest TV grilling so far. From the start, May had flatly refused to debate Corbyn face to face. But when they were interviewed one after another, and were tested by a live audience unimpressed by evasive answers, it was May who looked ill at ease. She was heckled and even mocked by members of the audience and was pressed repeatedly on why she had changed her mind on Brexit—which she originally opposed—her manifesto and her pledge not to call an early election.
By contrast, Corbyn, whose deficiencies were no news to anybody, sailed through with a Zen-like calm that won him plaudits from even some of his sternest critics.
And so, as the campaign enters its final week, while the outcome has never been in doubt—May will be returned as prime minister with an increased majority—there is no certainty about her margin of victory. The supposedly invincible big beast of the jungle has been bloodied and no longer stalks her prey with such bravado.
Her opponent looks stronger merely by having survived the initial assaults. It remains inconceivable that he will emerge the victor, but the British famously sympathise with the under- dog and look unfavourably on a brute. Yet we also hate to see a wounded animal suffer.
If after June 8th we are left with a prime minister who recognises she can no longer treat the electorate with contempt, and the opposition is able to start renewing itself under a fresh leadership capable of holding the government fully to account, then the long weeks of this unnecessary election campaign may have been worth it after all.