I’ve just returned to Brexitland after a week in the Aragonese Pyrenees with my daughter. During that time we continued to follow the tumultuous events that have convulsed our tormented island: Chilcot; the PLP’s viciously inept coup; the rapid extinction of the wretched Andrea Leadsom and the coronation of Theresa May; the ongoing racism coursing freely through the body politic.
Watching it from a distance there were a few shreds of minor comfort that could be drawn from the UK’s startling transformation into a political motorway pileup: the eclipse of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson; the indictment of Tony Blair by British establishment mandarins; the fact that England were no longer in the European championship.
That was about it really, and it wasn’t much. Returning to the motherland on Wednesday rapidly dissipated the lingering glow of schadenfreude and the healing properties of sunshine and mountain landscapes, and reminded me that the country I was born in has become a thing to behold with more horror than admiration. Within minutes of passing through the ridiculous signs aggressively proclaiming UK BORDER to all those foreigners out there stupid enough to mistake passport control for…passport control, I saw my first headline from the Daily Express: ‘Theresa May Will Stop Migrant Crisis.’
No surprises there. The day the Express fails to put the word ‘migrant’ on its front page is the day Richard Desmond will probably self-combust along with many of his readers. Even more ominously a phone call to my mother revealed that Boris Johnson, the Great Liar whose ambitions had supposedly been thwarted by Michael Gove’s treachery, had been called into Downing Street for talks with Theresa May.
By the time we left the airport we found out that Johnson had been made Foreign Secretary. I felt the beginnings of Brexit fever coming on again – a shaking hand and trembling jaw, eyes staring wildly in search of an escape route – as I tried to absorb the fact that the UK’s new foreign secretary is the same man who once lied again and again about the European Union as a journalist; who has made racist ‘gaffes’, as the media likes to call them, a stock-in-trade of his cheekie chappie persona; who suggested that Obama’s support of the EU was due to his ‘Kenyan ancestry’; a man who doesn’t read briefs; who used to shout ‘yah fishcakes’ when asked questions by the London Assembly; who was instrumental in winning the Brexit vote even though he had no plan what to do next.
I wanted to think it was funny, in a giggly, knockabout farce kind of way, as though I were watching a movie called Carry On Brexit, but I found I wasn’t laughing. As the train sped across the East Anglian countryside we pored over our phones and read the media praising David Cameron’s ‘dignified’ last PMQs as though they were saying goodbye to a noble and benign statesman, rather than the Flashmanlike bully and glib PR man who gambled his country’s future to win a political argument within the Tory Party, and who still had the unbearable gall to talk of his dedication to the ‘national interest.’
We read aghast that MPs on both sides of the house had applauded a prime minister who will surely go down as one of the greatest political wreckers in his country’s history. Some of these honorable gentlemen were Labour MPs who had previously shouted, heckled and sniggered at their own leader when he called for unity on the day that Cameron originally announced his resignation and apologized for the Iraq War. Some of them had sought to exclude Corbyn from the ballot in the leadership contest because they knew that he would win with an even bigger majority than last time.
These efforts were still going on even as our train continued to run through the stops. By the time we reached our destination we learned that the NEC had allowed Corbyn on the ballot after all – so generous of the NEC to allow a leader who won with more than sixty percent of the vote last year and still has the overwhelming support of his party membership to run. But shortly afterwards we discovered that this act of largesse had outrageously cancelled out by a new announcement from the NEC that all members who have joined the party since February must pay £25 in order to vote in the leadership contest.
To say that this was dispiriting and unedifying doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s simply mindboggling to contemplate the strange combination of Ruritania and Banana Republic that the UK has become as it continues to sink into a swamp of rancorous decadence with a distinctly Weimar flavour as it frantically searches for new ways to exclude foreigners from the country and find itself a new post-imperial role in a world that mostly sees us as a bad joke.
On the surface, Boris Johnson is the most obvious example of the Banana Republic jokey part. We know this is a man who likes a laff, and his improbable recovery from the knife that Gove stuck into him is yet more proof, if any were needed, that in today’s Britain intellectual shallowness, narcissism, political dishonesty, racism and incompetence are no obstacles to the progress of elite white politicians, and might actually smooth their progress to high office.
But Johnson’s promotion is also evidence of why the Tory Party has ruled the country for so long. After a brief period in which political bodies were piling up on stage like the final scene from a Revenger’s tragedy, the party has locked together behind Theresa May and produced a hard-right government that includes representatives of most of the factions that might have destabilised it.
Like Cameron when he first appeared as the Tory antidote to Tony Blair, May’s government has announced itself with lots of emollient ‘healing’ One Nation rhetoric. No one who looks at May or her team can take such claims seriously. First of all there is May herself, the political equivalent of Cruella de Vil, who presided over a swathe of draconian anti-immigrant laws, deportations and restrictions, including the removal of some 50,000 foreign students falsely accused of faking English language tests, and supported every bleak miserable decision that the Cameron/Osborne tandem took in the name of austerity.
Then there is Liam Fox, the equally rightwing former defense secretary whose ‘friend’ Adam Werritty accompanied him on official foreign trips and conducted private business that forced Fox to resign, and should have excluded him permanently from political office. And don’t expect much ‘healing’ from new Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who is a member of the political council of the Henry Jackson Society. Or from the new Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom – UK Mum of the Year – who knows as much about the environment as I do about astrophysics.
May clearly doesn’t know or care much about it either, and has now abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change in the same week that scientists have warned the government to take urgent action to mitigate the effects of…climate change. And then there is David Davies, the new ‘Minister for Brexit’ who even when he was campaigning in May didn’t realise that it is not possible to conclude separate trade agreements with EU member states.
For all the talk about May’s ‘safe pair of hands’ this is a hard-right, reactionary government that isn’t really likely to heal the nation even in normal circumstances, let alone when faced with the distinctly abnormal and unpromising circumstances in which we now find ourselves. Nevertheless it is a government, and the fact that it even exists is a testament to the Tory Party’s ability to hold itself together when it counts, and lock the troops together after completing its ritual political slaughter.
While the new government purrs smoothly away – probably towards disaster but never mind – Labour’s wheels continue to screech frantically round in the mud into which the PLP has dragged the party. Instead of trying to use the massive increase in membership as a basis for a revitalised social democratic politics, its MPs are actively seeking to neutralize and even expel their own membership, using the kind of gerrymandering practices that one would expect to find in Ulster in the 1960s.
The outcome of this struggle is by no means clear, but the fact that it is even taking place at all is an act of gross irresponsibility which suggests that many MPs have more in common with their counterparts on the other side of the chamber than they do with their own leader or their own members.
It’s also a tragedy, which opens up the chilling but very real scenario that May and her team of reactionaries and buffoons may prove to be far more enduring than they have any right to be.