Saturday 17 June 2017

Can Theresa May Survive?

Theresa May is determined to grab the worst Prime Minister ever crown from her predecessor, at least if her incompetence over the Grenfell tragedy is anything to go by. Her initial visit to the site to meet emergency service workers but pointedly not surviving residents was incredibly cold, and incredibly damaging. For millions, May's behaviour sums up the contempt she and her ilk have for working class people, and those in particular forced to get by with social security support. On top of all that, more failures have come out that impact and reinforce the reception of Grenfell as an episode in the class war. We learn the Tories were slapping each others' backs for diluting fire safety regulations earlier this year. While Tory-run Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council could have been investing more in service provision, it turns out they've doled out council tax rebates while local authorities in poorer parts of the country winced under the cosh of cuts. And lastly, according to the recently-defenestrated Nick Clegg, he met resistance on social housing from Dave and Osborne because it only "creates Labour voters". No wonder people are bloody angry.

And so the Tories are getting found out. The party of the spiv, the rentier, the money grubber, and the parasite are having their ugly character exposed to the full glare of the British public, and what they see is appalling masses of people who've previously regarded anti-Tory rhetoric as political knockabout. Grenfell has been compared to the Poll Tax, but it is more than that. Remember, the Tories got shot of Thatcher and rebooted successfully in time for the 1992 general election. No, this crisis is altogether more serious as it threatens the very party itself. For the Tories, it is a crisis of legitimation, and they run the risk of taking damage so serious that a lengthy period out of government is almost inevitable, regardless of when the next general election falls. Their deal with the DUP certainly won't save them.

This begs the question then, given Grenfell and their political complicity in the lead up to an unnecessary tragedy, how can they and Theresa May, as their reviled figurehead, stay on? Unfortunately, I am forced to report that the demands of the moment would likely see the Tories and May cling on for dear life. On the Prime Minister's fate, assuming she is still in position by the time I've finished writing this post, it suits the interests of too many for her to remain. Reports that Johnson has told his supporters to fall in behind the PM seem credible enough. He's already sharing the burden of Brexit with David Davis and disgraced serving minister Liam Fox. Does he want Brexit to be his and his alone? Absolutely not. Does he also want to take over at a time when not even his faux bonhomie can save the Tories from a looming disaster? Hell no. There is however one person who would be willing, even is she's definitely not able, and that would be the dread Leadsom. Thankfully for the Tories, there is no situation so dire that she could possibly be the solution. Yet she, unlike her titular boss, did go down and speak to residents in and around Grenfell. I wonder if she prefaced her remarks with "As a mother ...".

Because Tory fractiousness means all interests are served by May carrying on as a meat shield, it's unlikely a putsch would come. There's another reason too that increases her chances of staying, a problem (for them at least) they rate higher than the Brexit negotiations themselves. According to Tory whips, she has said there are four words explaining her decision to soak it up and stagger on: Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn. It is difficult to put into words how much the prospect of an insurgent Labour Party terrifies them. Though, irony of ironies, if everything in Corbyn's manifesto was implemented capital as a whole would benefit. But for them, it's an instinct. If capital is subject to greater controls and responsibilities by a party with a mass, politicised and radicalising base, anything could happen. Not least the relationship of command their class privileges entitle them to would be under threat. Their objections and fears is not about having to pay more tax or getting forced to recognise trade unions, it's about power. Their ideological penchant for small-statism is a recognition that their state can, on occasion, be turned against them and that certain sections of capital be made to pay the price of restructuring capital as a whole. See the Attlee government and Swedish social democracy, for example.

Whether that fear is groundless or not, for the Tories it is real. If you combine that with a sense of certainty they will lose the next election, that many of our newly-minted MPs quite like the idea of staying on in the House and aren't going to give up their seats, and the slim chance any election call would clear the provisions of the fixed term, an election looks unlikely.

While there are powerful forces that frame and are expressed through politics, is there anything May's premiership can do to stabilise the situation? Her immediate aim is getting Brexit sorted, but there are a number of other things she can do to try and detoxify the outfit she has so indelibly stained. Given that many Tories are cottoning on to how the public's patience with austerity is at an end, it would be sensible for May to try and enact some of the more Milibandist moments from her manifesto. Keeping the promised funding and parity of treatment for mental health immediately springs to mind, for example. Though going too far in this direction could invite Tory rebellion, making her fatally dependent on Labour votes - assuming Labour agrees. I also expect attempts to try and knock Labour off course - she's likely to revisit her duff counter-terror strategy and, in what would be a surreal replay of the election, dare Corbyn not to back her. Whatever May tries, it's going to be scrappy, and it will certainly be unedifying.

Quite apart from their crisis now, the election reconfirmed their declinist tendency. Managing Brexit, running a feeble government, navigating inner party division, stymieing crisis bleeds here, there, and everywhere, it would stretch the most able of politicians. Theresa May, fortunately for us, doesn't come close to this and cannot but exacerbate her party's problems further.


Anonymous said...

Good post, but two quick points:

1: Boris Johnson, Rudd, Leadsom et al. havn't shelved their bids for good, but are biding their time. They'll have calculated that the early Brexit negotiations will look extremely bad for the government, and it'll be then when they strike. Perhaps around party conference season. Don't underestimate the lure of the poisoned chalice.

2: This is a 1945 or 1979 moment - political consciousness itself has changed. The incumbent never makes the right decisions in these times - they're playing from an old song book. Personality politics is finally dying; we're moving back to actual policies.

It would be no surprise whatsoever if we saw a Tory reboot, but towards the right, rather than the left. Already we're hearing that Hammond and other senior figures are wishing to return to their "free market roots".

May in many ways is the ultimate Blairite politician - all talk, but no action. Pitching an election campaign on such a nebulous abstraction as "strong and stable" is proof of this. So is her habit, like Blair, of speaking entirely in pre-rehearsed soundbites. She thinks that merely discussing that a problem exists is the same as solving it.

Austerity will disappear from the discourse, but that won't mean it'll end.

A long way to go, I think.

David Timoney said...

Though it seems obvious to us civvies that anyone would be mad to want to relieve May of her burden, we shouldn't underestimate the power of ambition (e.g. Michael Gove last year). Success in politics is often about fortuitous circumstance - consider the ascent of Blair. I suspect a stalking horse, a la Anthony Meyer, will eventually appear, at which point May will fold and the usual suspects will bound forward.

Viewed in terms of personal ambition, which is all most Tories care about, Brexit offers 2 possibilities: hard means full jingo and the gushing love of the tabloids; soft means our hero saves the day for capital & earns the undying love of the liberal media. The actual result may be shit, but it can be spun. Tories like Johnson, who was famously instrumental about the referendum, still see Brexit as a career opportunity.

What will drive May out is events, dear boy, events.

Carolyn said...

Agree with the first poster who said that Leadsom (et al) were biding their time. I saw that Leadsom had visited the victims and also that she liked and retweeted the Queen's official birthday announcement which directly highlighted the nation's sombre mood and indirectly the visit that Maj made to see victims too.
For me, she was supporting the establishment at the same time as highlighting May's weaknesses, perhaps (indeed) as a non-Mother...

Walsie said...

Never underestimate the Grey. Hammond was doing the studio sofa round on Sunday, exuding a Baldwinesque measure of calm and tranquility, and the "ordinary fellow" approach beloved of Major