Interviewer: What’s the naughtiest thing you’ver ever done?
Theresa May: Gosh … well … um, no one’s perfectly behaved … I suppose when me and my friends ran through wheatfields, the farmers weren’t too pleased …
— Theresa May, interview with ITV, two days before election
Poor old Theresa May. Monday, 4.55am, she must have been slumbering, running through fields of wheat in her head, young and free, but then a klaxon sounds! Oh no! They are running towards the white cliffs of Dover! The wheat is Boris Johnson’s hair! The Prime Minister wakes. The klaxon is the alarm clock. There is no free running here. She is no Thatcher in the wry. She is Theresa May, in an impossible situation, with nothing ahead of her but months of pain, humiliation and resignation or deposition. She tries to sleep again, maybe to throw herself off the cliffs. But they’re made of goatskin, and she floats safely to the English channel. Where she continues to sink. Time to get up and run the country for as long as they’ll let her.
The UK is still reeling from last Thursday’s election, in which the Tories — sorry, “the Conservative and Unionist Party” as they now call themselves all the time — gave away a modest majority of 330 seats in a 650-seat parliament (643 effectively, given Sinn Fein abstention) for a plurality of 319 seats, against a renewed Labour Party’s score of 262 seats, up 21. Those figures disguise the full disaster for the Tories; they have 48% of the seats, but only 43% of the votes, against Labour’s 41%, due to the telescope effect of first-past-the-post systems. The raw numbers are worse still: 13,667,213 against 12, 874, 985. When you look at the new Tory marginal line, it is worst of all: less than 10,000 votes hold off Labour.
The Tories are making the obvious claims: that this was still a victory, as they are still the largest party, that Labour only came up to its 2010 seat count, when Gordon Brown lost to David Cameron, etc, etc. So too are various Labour-identified types, of which more below. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?
But the truth is, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has headed the Tories off at the pass. The Tories were counting on a 60- to 70-seat majority, around 380, 390 seats. That would have marginalised in-party dissidents once and for all and made Labour’s task in 2022 nearly impossible. It would have set the Tories up for a chance to rule into the 2030s. Labour, down at around 200 — and especially if below 200 — would have been consumed by infighting of a viciousness unseen for nearly a century, and quite possibly split.
The prospects for the Conservatives are now dire. They must govern with minor party support. Majority support, and legitimacy for, a “hard Brexit”, and especially the recently suggested “no-deal Brexit” (where no trade arrangement kicks in, as the article 50 process is completed and the UK leaves the EU), is now in tatters. There is now no clear directive from the people as to how they would like the Brexit process to go. Every move will have to be fought and debated, item by item. That is a boon for those who wanted to ensure that Brexit, in Tory hands, did not become a do-over of workers’ and citizens’ rights. It is going to be an exhausting, draining and bare-knuckle process, with plenty of opportunity for brinkmanship and terrible misjudgement.
That is unlikely to faze May. Unlikely, because she won’t be around to do the negotiations. She is, as numerous media outlets, mostly Tory, have put it, a “dead woman walking”, “dead meat”, a “zombie PM” — the epithets have a real nasty party quality about them, supercharged by being directed at a woman leader. May didn’t help with an initial statement from outside No. 10, vowing to press on, and containing no ritual obeisance, contrition or apologies to members who had lost their seats. This was amended a few hours later when a camera crew were invited in for a fireside chat — if an apology hissed through clenched teeth can be so described.
Many were aghast that May hadn’t resigned immediately. Estimates of her survival as leader ranged from “72 hours” to “the end of summer”. No one believes she will survive for a year or more. Many believe the government won’t. That government will be the 318 conservatives, with a confidence-and-supply support from the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party — the hardline party founded by Ian Paisley, and with numerous murky connections to Ulster paramilitaries. They have 10 seats, having finally eaten up their more centrist rivals, the Ulster Unionists (as Sinn Fein, with seven, have finally driven out the non-abstentionist SDLP). The DUP are no modernised conservative party — they’re a Protestant religious party, with strong anti-liberal social views and archaic notions about LGBT issues, evolution and science. They will want huge funds and investment favours for Northern Ireland, but they will be happy to rubber-stamp austerity elsewhere. They are pro-Brexit and will push for it to be done faster and harder. The difficulties will come with potential conflicts with the Scottish Conservatives led by Ruth Davidson (who is married to a woman), who has a hip, no-nonsense manner, and has led the Tartories to take seven seats north of the border, as the second party.
The DUP leadership will stick with the new government through hell or high water. They have near-total saturation, and they will never have more power than now. Their erratic rank-and-file MPs are another matter entirely. But whoever leads the Tory government will have to contend with a greater danger, the Tory non-government — those who continue to believe that leaving the EU will be a supreme disaster for the UK, to be headed off by any means necessary. Would they actually bring the government down? Not in a direct no-confidence notion, but they might join in a series of votes that would make progress in negotiations impossible. At that point, which might be less than a year away, there would be a fresh election, and it would not be impossible for Labour to slide in. It would only need to take another 15 or so seats direct from the Tories — say, 318-262, down to 300-280 — to be able to run a minority government with SNP-Lib Dem-Plaid Cymru-Green support.
That result is all the more feasible given that Corbyn Labour’s performance has been so impressive, and Corbyn himself has emerged as a far more assured leader than he was, even at the start of the campaign. Rallies and walkarounds energised him, at the same time as May’s frozen lack of spontaneity became more painfully visible with each passing encounter. The 41% result has put to rest any question of a leadership challenge and forced the Blairites and “centrists” to perform abnegating mea culpas. Corbyn only needs to be about 10% more plausible for many Remainers to view him as someone who can negotiate more rationally with the EU than the Tories. Should May be replaced by David Davis, a measured and intelligent man, that cause would become more difficult. Should they elevate Boris Johnson, then the No. 10 staff might as well start ploughing up the back lawn for a place for Jezzer to grow his marrows. Contrary to the Boy Bramston’s piece in the Oz today (another cutting-edge Bramston article, straight out of 2014), Boris is now over the hump, widely seen as a blond buffoon. The forward-moving article 50 process is concentrating the mind wonderfully. Continuing Tory chaos will only add to that.
Indeed, it has already begun. The Queen’s speech and the opening of Parliament next Monday will have to be delayed, it is said, because the contents of the speech will not be finalised by Thursday. Why Thursday? Well, the speech, once composed, must be put onto goatskin parchment, taking three days to write and dry, with no corrections possible. Yes, the party that could get nothing done right in its program has only one chance to write it down.
Poor old Theresa has no dreams left, only nightmares, and too late for corrections. Pale and papery, she will wake to find that she is her own resignation letter, a single draft, rustling, as in the wind, distant fields of wheat.