Has anyone ever been hoist higher on their own petard than Theresa May? Last July, she chained the Brexiteers to their punishment jobs: you made this mess, she told Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox, so you can bloody well clear it up. Nothing gave her such mischievous joy since frolicking through those fields of wheat.
Eleven months later, she serves at Boris’ pleasure in the most humiliating punishment job known to political history. Barely in office by the skin of her teeth, with the power to do nothing but plap out the platitudes, she is the creature of colleagues who can remove her at will whenever the timing suits.
She is also at the mercy of both the creationist gay-bashers of the DUP (assuming a deal with them can be salvaged from the chaos currently engulfing the talks); and of Ruth Davidson, who may not invite too many of them to her lesbian wedding, and a baker’s dozen of Scottish Tory MPs dead set against a hard Brexit.
With May held hostage by three groups with clashing demands, the only quibble with George Osborne’s “dead woman walking” is that it understates the hopelessness.
On death row, there’s always that glimmer of hope that the governor will commute the sentence while you’re finishing that last meal. But May is strapped into Old Sparky, watching her executioners fight for the right to throw the switch, if not twitching in the chair as the acrid smoke sidles from her hair.
Even she must realise that from today’s front pages, though whether she spent the previous 48 hours believing she could soldier on indefinitely is disputed. One report claims it took Iain Duncan-Smith, the idiot of the zombie village whom no earthly power can lay to rest, to talk her out of resigning on Friday morning. But according to a minister I bumped into on Saturday, she genuinely thought she could survive indefinitely. “Oh yeah,” this minister said, “she really is that deluded.”
If so, today’s headlines have exposed the limitations of a strategy borrowed from Seinfeld’s George Costanza, who arrived at work the Monday after furiously quitting the previous Friday meaning to continue in his job as if nothing had happened. It didn’t work for him either.
If her Tory hostage-takers think they can keep May as a figurehead purely to avoid the quick second election they would expect to lose, they should be disabused of that fantasy within days. Every hour she survives, isolated without her thuggish duo of advisers, and with the vocal support of no one but fellow cyborg Michael Fallon, the Conservative position weakens.
So does the Brexit negotiating position of a country that has already given her a punishment beating for an opportunistic election. It will kneecap the Tories if they send her into battle in Brussels on our behalf. It will shoot them in the head if she strikes a deal with the DUP to threaten a fragile Northern Ireland peace process by openly favouring the Protestant community over the Catholic.
If these pennies still haven’t landed on their thick skulls, it will become clear very soon that any further displays of transparent self-interest at a moment of mounting national crisis will gift No 10 to Jeremy Corbyn.
In this context, the notion that the EU divorce negotiations should begin on schedule next week is deranged. It’s one thing sending the captain to the middle with a broken bat, quite another to send a political corpse to the crease to face bowling so hostile that it makes the 1980s’ West Indies quartet of quickies look invitingly tame.
If sanity were a stronger currency than these turbulent times permit, May would demand a postponement and resign at once, agreeing to stay only until a new leader (Boris, Davis, Amber Rudd or an outsider bursting from the pack in traditional Tory style) has been chosen to fight a second general election in October, by when Germany may have clarified matters a little with its own election.
She may yet do so. The only element absent from the torrent of post-catastrophe analysis has been any effort to imagine her psychological state. I suppose you’re asking for that when you play the android, but May is in fact a human being. As such she will be deeply traumatised, if not paralysed, by shock, regret and shame. Every instinct will be screaming at her to get out as fast as she can, and flee to Maidenhead with the Arthur Askey husband to sob her heart out in private.
If the murderous mauling in store at the parliamentary party meeting brought forward to Monday doesn’t make up her mind to go, the clinical dismantling from Jeremy Corbyn (magisterially relaxed and confident with Andrew Marr today) at PMQs might clinch it. The pressure on her is close to unbearable. It won’t take much of a final straw to break her now.
Fatally wounded prime ministers (John Major after the ERM disaster of 1992, Gordon Brown after 2009) have staggered on before. But I can’t recall a decomposing cadaver stood at the dispatch box with the stench of rotting flesh nauseating both chamber and country.
She may be the plaything of her Cabinet, the tartan Tories and possibly the DUP, but the British are in no mood to have our future held hostage by whatever the Conservatives believe their own interests to be. God knows what lunacy will replace it, but this madness must end now.
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