The late spring haze has descended on Britain, with the country going to its late May bank holiday weekend. Once, this was the occasion for works dos loading into buses and spending a few days at Frinton-on-Sea, eating whelks on grey stone beaches and tearing off knotted head-handkerchiefs whenever the sun came out for eight minutes. The regimented leisure of a regimented people.
Today, it’s completely different. Everyone gets on the A443 or the M12, you want to take bypass at Spazzington and get on the B446 and go to a muddy field where there’s a festival headlined by Weezer and featuring a re-formed Lindisfarne and 40 bands you’ve never heard of and we’re all largin’ it and drinking rose and wooooooo and then on Tuesday we all go back to Godelpus and Felchington, and our job at Wernham-Hogg. Festivals are everywhere, they’re like sort of travelling Butlin’s, and they remind us that running deep in the country’s blood is a collective impulse, a surrendering of self that 40 years of celebrating individualism have not snuffed out.
But the holiday mood of late spring — “there’s no way out of this demented class-machine, we may as well lager lager lager” — is overcast. It has come too soon after the Manchester bombing, but too late for full mourning to continue. Campaigning stopped, then it started again, for a day, before slowing down for the holiday. Blowing up a bunch of kids at an Ariana Grande concert … the attack, even more than blowing up a train, had put people on edge. The weekend newspapers were full of profiles of murdered kids, horrifying and sad, and passing over to ghoulishness — the UK papers do well, perhaps their final skill.
The pause on campaigning for three days was odd, felt odd, threw much of the bluster of the first weeks into sharp relief, seemed to take the country to the edge of renouncing politics altogether. Even though the public had been offered the starkest choice of possible governments since 1992, it sometimes seemed as if it was all about administrative matters: who should run the railways and so on. Accent on “had been”: the Tories had moved so far to the left in the three weeks preceding that — at least in rhetoric — there was no great gap. People had been comparing it to the 1984 election, Foot v Thatcher, but that was nonsense. The ’84 manifesto had promised more nationalisations; Thatcher was offering the first wave of privatisations. That was a choice about which way to go, and Britain is still living in it. This was becoming a repeat of the ’50s, when the Tories matched Labour promise for promise. The capper was Theresa May’s quick U-turn on the “dementia tax” — the proposal that aged care costs should be borne by the individual, down to a 100,000 pound limit, deferred till after your death.
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The proposal seemed hubristic even when it was announced, a barely concealed assumption that old people would Tory even if Theresa May started throwing them in a garbage compacter. It also assumed that Labour was too hopeless to land a blow. But it was Jeremy Corbyn who dubbed it a “dementia tax”, and it’s the only phrase of the campaign that’s struck, instantly recalling to mind the image of the Tories that May most tried to dispel — that of the “nasty party”. The Tories knocked it on the head, returning to the old idea of a cap on costs, before state assistance kicks in. That’s a Lynton Crosby special, I would presume, straight out of the old Howard playbook (recall Howard’s U-turn on superannuation changes, when it began to play for Latham). But the vital other part of the move is confessing that you did it, because people hated what you proposed — acknowledging yourself to be a servant of the people. Instead, May attempted, bizarrely, to deny that there had been a U-turn at all, which seemed to both undermine the move and make it look as if she thought we were mugs. The interview was a delicious car crash, a real Jon English, hitting every wrong note.
This disaster occurred at the same time as two polls came out announcing that Labour had jumped as much as eight points, into the mid-30s, and the Tories had come down to the mid-40s. Still a dizzying gap to anyone acquainted with Australian 51.5% “landslides”, but a real movement. A third round this weekend had a six- to eight-point gap averaged over three polls.
Something quite interesting is happening here. Or rather several things are. The first is that Theresa May has collapsed as the dynamic, presidential leader she was being lined up as. The fall has been rapid and stark. May looked wholly in command two weeks ago; now she looks imperious and irritable, as if the whole idea of an ELECTION against JEREMY CORBYN is an absurd thing to have to do at all, much less actually compete in. She combines that with a surprisingly skittish manner; it doesn’t take much of a tough question for her to dive into a robot dance response. And now that she’s fair game again, she’s getting some of the same treatment that Corbyn had been getting: the photos of her eating chips are becoming a symbol of her changing image: someone with both an empty drive for power and a disdain for those she wants it over.
All very unfair probably. But nothing like what has been handed out to Corbyn, who is simultaneously becoming more recognisable in the public press as a decent and straightforward guy — and fighting off an increasingly brutal campaign on his past meetings with IRA and other figures. The stories are a classic double-play: Corbyn may have shared a public meeting with a couple of IRA figures once; the rest of his dozen meetings were with Sinn Fein figures who had never been in the IRA my goodness me, no, to be sure. But this was as part of ongoing contacts towards a peace agreement, at the same time as the government was talking to them too. Happily, Corbyn never urged victory to the Provos. Unhappily his offsider, feisty black British MP Diane Abbott did. Abbott is emerging as Left Labour’s engaging omnishambles, saying today that she no longer supports the IRA just as she no longer wears an afro. It is her third or fourth gaffe of the campaign.
Nevertheless even this hasn’t take the gloss off. Corbyn gave a speech linking the Manchester attack with British foreign policy of intervention in the Middle East. At the current G7 meeting in Sicily, May denounced Corbyn for “blaming ourselves” for the attack. But it doesn’t appear to have worked, and a big power conference might not have been the place to say it. Scepticism about such adventures is general right across the political spectrum, and the Libyan mission is seen as particularly superfluous. The Spectator observed that Corbyn’s speech might function as a trap for the Tories, and so it would appear to be — drawing them into striking a neocon attitude that everyone is absolutely done with.
We won’t know till the weekend is concluded and the final push begins. The whole place has an air of The Camomile Lawn about it, the novel you read when it’s too soon to read Waugh and the Mitfords again, a tale of holiday idylls and cocksucking in the summer of 1939. Across the long grass of the festivals, the shadow of a Spitfire passes …