When historians come to write the history of the present, will they lead with “what the F- happened?”.
It is the least of the half-dozen events and non-events in a crowded week, but the most symbolic. UK Prime Minister Theresa May, addressing the Tory Party conference on its final day, knew she had to pull out a blinder of a speech, to re-establish her authority, after a renewed campaign of destabilisation by natural blonde Manbaby Boris Johnson.
That didn’t happen. The opposite of it happened. May’s voice was shaky, her content bland and a list of giveaways, to try and tempt folks back from Labour, and part way through she was handed a “P45” (unemployment benefits) form by a prankster named “Brodkin”. “Boris told me to do it!” he yelled as he was hauled away. Phew, almost over, May must have thought, this ordeal is making me unpleasantly warm.
No, that was the room temperature, which rose to a point where one of the letters on her slogan “Building a Country That Works For Everyone” resigned its position and fell to the floor. Yes, the speech got the “F” and May finished her address on the topic of “Building a Country That Works Or Everyone”.
Could have been worse. Various alternative disasters were offered, the best of which was “Building a Cunt hat”, but at least that would have had some pizzazz. As it was, the non-sequitur — it was not merely similar to, it was exactly the version The Thick Of It would have chosen as a plot point — merely added to that side of Theresa May that many find easy to dislike.
May is the cynosure of anti-pleasure, a politician who has zero capacity to summon the fantasy that life could be otherwise. She’s a minor, disliked character from an Anita Brookner novel, she is a hospital visit on a wet Saturday afternoon, a repeat of a Midsomer Murders episode, an unnecessary train trip to Peterborough, the chocolate mousse dessert at an Angus Steak House. After the speech, which was marked by a persistent cough, she tweeted a pic of a pack of Strepsils beside her speech notes, and that really says it all: she is Strepsils.
Yes, no one can help having a cough. But politics is theatre and spectacle, and an inability to get basic things right — tight security, the solidity of the set — magnifies bad luck, until the effect is unavoidable. The speech’s lame content — vague promises on energy prices, an affordable housing program that turned out to guarantee a paltry 5000 new homes a year — was graced with the odd, US-import phrase “Rebuilding the British Dream”. But it’s one of those dreams where you’re buying ring-binder files in Officeworks, and that’s all that happens.
When you’re focused on something, when you want it, the adrenaline flows, and your body suppresses a whole series of system reactions, including those that prompt coughing. You know a play’s going badly when the coughing starts, because the audience’s tense focus has been lost. So as with a speech. May’s physical ordeal was a register of her, and her whole section of the party’s, ambivalence, at best, about holding power at all. The ruling class doesn’t want to rule. They wanted to run a neoliberal state, integrated into Europe, and later slide sideways onto a few finance sector boards. Now because of this meshuggeneh referendum, they have to reinvent Britain in the modern era, devise a whole new state form.
That’s a thankless, joyless task if you didn’t get into politics to change anything, in the first place. For those who did, it’s catnip, which is why Corbyn Labour — who are deep-down, Tony Benn-style, anti-EU sovereignty socialists — are taking to it so easily, and why Nigel Farage has retained and amplified his political credibility, even as UKIP has collapsed around him. And of course Boris, whose energy is directed to nothing other than Boris, a man desperate to land at Number 10 before his credibility drains away entirely.
He’s been a bad journalist, a dilettante magazine editor, a distracted local MP, a “writer” of schlock stocking-filler history, a stooge-like TV series “presenter”, a mayor with no real devotion to the great city he’d been honoured with leading, and now a Foreign Minister so far out of his depth, as to start reciting Kipling poems during a visit to the supreme Buddhist temple in Myanmar, site of a century of richly remembered British colonial brutality. “Britishness” was the theme of Johnson’s conference speech, and it was a fairly average version of the Manchester Liberal account of modern history he’s given before: the British invented the industrial revolution, exported it to the world, and that made everyone prosperous and rich, without apparently anyone doing any politics about the sharing out, at all.
He’s done that one a lot, and he’s done it a lot better; this time around he sounded like a Butlin’s redcoat trying to get a party of millworkers from Sidcup to dance the hokey-pokey. The trouble with fuelling a political career on delusional narcissism is that when the political movement you’re part of falters somewhat, you lose all momentum whatsoever. Five years ago, Boris had genuine cred and following among sections of the general public, especially the discouraged Tory shires; three years ago, a lot of it was gone, but the Tories still thought he had it. Now, to judge from conference vox pops, even a lot of hardcore Tories are sceptical. One who thought that Boris could appeal to the youf vote also said that the Tory Party should be “more like the X-Factor, because that’s what young people seem to like”.
That said, Boris could still claim the leadership by default. May, after this outing, is surely gone, and faster than she was already gone before it. The better choice, in terms of basic competence, would be one of the grey men, such as Philip Hammond or David Davis; Home Secretary Amber Rudd presents as a sort of Theresa May without the content; popular Edward Lear character Jacob Rees-Mogg is being put forward in order to make Boris look like a steady pair of hands. Which, of course, he isn’t.
Any movement that can allow someone like Boris Johnson to get close to power in one of the two states that anchor dominant Atlantic alliance, is a movement that has abdicated its historical role. It is like, I dunno, something improbable, like Donald Trump becoming US President. And it is worth reflecting on what such “freakish” and absurd events — as the coincident elevation of these two men — would mean for the great collapse that appears to be going on all around us.