There are some politicians who look better from a distance, and Theresa May is definitely one of them. May and her advisors are clearly aware of this, and they have done their best to shield her anything approaching close scrutiny. They have refused to let her participate in political debates. In an absurd attempt to present May as a politician in touch with ‘ordinary people’, her team have arranged a series of increasingly bizarre stage-managed encounters with party loyalists in factories and other public places from which the public has either been removed or forced to remain silent about what it heard.
Not that there has been much to hear, except for incantations and soundbites. But even if these theatrical flourishes have a tinny North Korean-style echo to them, Tory Central Office clearly prefers that hollow sound to anything approaching intimacy or proximity – and with good reason. Asked on Radio Derby whether she agreed with the arch-buffoon’s characterisation of Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘mugwump’ she replied ‘What I recognise is that what we need in this country is strong and stable leadership.’
That wasn’t an answer, but it is pretty much the only answer May has to any question these days. Well not quite. On the Andrew Marr show on Sunday she was asked what she thought of the fact that many British nurses use foodbanks. May’s immortal answer was: ‘People use foodbanks for complex reasons’. These words really ought to be trailed in blazing letters across the sky or put on the side of a bus and driven from one end of the nation to the other, because they capture not only the essence of Toryism, but the essence of May herself.
Remember all those months ago, when May demurely announced her leadership bid, oozing sincerity and humility as she told the world that she wasn’t one of those politicians who ‘wear their heart on the sleeve’ but someone who just ‘got on with the job in front of them’? How appealing those words sounded then – to some at least. Remember last year’s Tory Party conference when she railed against ‘international elites’ and promised to stand up for ‘ordinary working-class people’? Her observations on foodbanks make it clear – if there was any doubt – that the reason she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve is because she has no heart at all, and that she doesn’t have the remotest idea who ordinary working class people actually are or what is actually happening to them.
In that sense she is not much different from her predecessor, or from the cynical clowns who she managed to fend off to get the Big Job. But May’s aura of can-do competence last year had an immediate post-Brexit appeal to an anxious British public that was feeling nervous about what it had just voted for, and desperate for any politician who seemed to know where the country was going and how they were going to get there. May seemed confident and superficially competent enough to suggest that she might be that person – especially given the competition.
In addition, her meaningless tautological insistence that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ appealed to those who don’t care where we’re going as long as we get out of the EU. So all good, except that it wasn’t. May’s image of competence was already looking tarnished long before she called the election. No sooner had she become PM than she appointed a succession of chancers, idiots and ideologues to her cabinet who were patently unworthy of their positions. She then went on to make speech after speech alienating her European negotiating partners and pandering to the popcorn-munching gallery of Farageland.
True, she was good at throwing puerile Mean Girls insults at Jeremy Corbyn in PMQ. But the more she appears in any other format that is not controlled or scripted, the more it becomes painfully clear that she is yet another rabbit peering into the oncoming headlights of history, who is as out-of-depth as her colleagues and equally unwilling to listen to anyone who tells her things that she doesn’t want to hear.
If there was any doubt about this, the leaked reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAZ) on the Downing Street ‘Brexit dinner‘ ought to lay them to rest. OK, I know this is a German newspaper, and nowadays we know that Germany is only using the EU to get what it didn’t get during World War II and all Germans are closet Nazis and therefore can’t be trusted. But apart from that, there is no reason to dispute the genuine shock and incredulity of Juncker and his colleagues on realising how little May understands about what is at stake over the next few months and years and how little leverage she actually has.
Given the kind of country that we have become, and the kind of newspapers that have done so much to bring us to the cliff-edge that we are now looking over, no one will be surprised that some have tried to spin this debacle as yet another example of the sheer iniquity of these damned foreigners. Whether it’s Tony Parsons ranting on about the war and calling Jean-Claude Juncker a ‘puffed-up political pygmy’ or the Daily Mail venting about the ‘bully boys of the EU’, we have become accustomed to an extremely low-level debate – usually sloshing somewhere around the gutter – about all things European for a long time now.
Others will recognize that it is not a good look to have European politicians suggesting that the Prime Minister of the UK is ‘delusional’ and ‘living in another galaxy’, and that such accusations do no bode well. They may wonder why May’s timetable seems so blatantly at odds with that of her negotiating partners, and why it is that she seems incapable of understanding the things they are telling her, and why she refuses to listen to people who tell her anything different.
Given these terrifying limitations, you can see why she has chosen to campaign as a robot programmed by Lynton Crosby that simply utters the words ‘strong and stable…strong and stable’ over and over again, like a soothing mantra for a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown to mutter to itself before slipping into another night’s fitful sleep.
If you or I were Theresa May we would do the same. But fortunately we aren’t. We are in possession of our faculties, and we can still vote against her. It may not be possible to vote her out of office, but her majority can certainly be reduced. If it was, that would be a kind of victory. And we need to try, because this hologram-robot is asking for a mandate to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations, even when she clearly does not know what she is doing.
Giving into such a request would be like putting your hands on a steering wheel, driven by a would-be suicidal maniac screeching at high speed towards a brick wall. Normally, sensible passengers don’t accept requests like that, but these are not normal times, and there will be those who will blame the looming disasters on the EU and the ‘saboteurs’ or ‘EU quislings, rather than the madwoman at the wheel.
May is clearly attempting to make us complicit in her madness, and it isn’t too late to come to our senses and vote for anything and anyone that is not Theresa May and not Tory.
Alternatively, we can just accept her invitation to grasp the wheel. We can stare into her glassy eyes and mutter over and over again ‘strong and stable…strong and stable’ in the hope that it will all just work out somehow, despite the mounting evidence that it really won’t.