On Thursday 23rd June 2016 it seemed pretty clear what course British politics was set upon. Prime Minister David Cameron had led the Conservatives to an unexpected triumph at the previous year’s General Election, becoming the first leader since 1900 to increase his party’s share of the vote while in office. The doubters had been silenced, leaving Cameron looking secure in Downing Street for the foreseeable future (and with his key lieutenant George Osborne safely installed next door). Labour were in disarray. The party leadership had been captured by a fringe pairing of far-left provocateurs called Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Such was the turmoil this produced that the party could barely hold itself together, let alone mount a credible opposition to the government, and so it looked likely to be out of power for another decade at least. All the Prime Minster had to do was get through the EU Referendum without disaster, which the polls were largely predicting he would. After that it would be plain sailing.
When the results of the vote became clear on that Friday morning, it was not just that the smooth passage of the good ship Cameron had been impeded; the vessel itself had been smashed below the waterline and was sinking into the abyss, never to rise again. The triumph of the Leave campaign violently altered, in one stroke, forty years of British policy. Suddenly we were gaping, open-jawed, at the prospect of exiting the Single Market, the largest trading bloc in the world and our most significant export market. The effect was that of a seemingly stable building being struck with a sledgehammer and crumbling, showing that behind the solid facade had been rocky foundations all along. The Tories emerged from the wreckage with homespun Theresa May as their new leader, and thus our Prime Minister. This victory came almost entirely by way of default, as the other viable contenders helpfully knifed each other and left the way clear for her ascendancy. Labour turned on Corbyn for a lackluster contribution to the campaign to remain in the EU, only to find – after he saw off the leadership challenge of Owen Smith – that they were still saddled with him. His emboldened supporters had been gifted another oft-asserted “mandate” to run the party, and Labour’s demise seemed inevitable.
This left the British political system facing something of a dilemma. We effectively had a new government, just over a year after holding a general election. The Prime Minister had campaigned against Brexit, but vowed that delivering it would be almost the very raison d’etre of her premiership. The party she led in Parliament were largely against it. Most of the MP’s in the opposition party were also opposed, though their leader was suspected of harbouring secret support for the idea. Meanwhile, a constituent nation of the UK had voted by a majority to stay. The Nationalist party, which held all but one seat in Scotland, were adamantly opposed to their country being dragged out of the European Union against the people’s wishes. Even more serious was the potential implication for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Despite all this turmoil, May came under little significant pressure to call a “snap” election before embarking on the enormous challenge of Brexit. Labour were hardly clamouring for the opportunity to be annihilated at the polling stations. The conservative press, meanwhile, had been sated by Mrs May’s reinvention as The Brexinator, surrounding her with a bodyguard of (largely unmerited) favourable press coverage. So her decision to announce a general election last month can safely be said to have been prompted by naked strategic interest. It’s clear that the Prime Minister saw a chance to finish off Labour, and guarantee herself a full five year term in office with her own personal mandate from the electorate.
Despite stating numerous times that she would not go to the country early, Mrs May claimed it was now clear an election was essential. Her announcement from Downing Street was skin crawling for it’s insincerity and her listless attempt to deceive her real motives for this volte-face. Apparently May only decided to call an election after discovering that, shockingly, some people still had qualms about the government’s plans for Brexit. “The country is coming together but Westminster is not”, she said, seemingly forgetting that we do not live in a one-party state, and she is not the absolute and infallible leader of an adoring nation. In addition, she argued a personal mandate was needed to “strengthen her hand” in the upcoming Brexit negotiations in Europe. In other words, we were expected to believe that leaders of other major European countries would be bowled over by the fact that a head of government had won an election, and stand back from the new Iron Lady in awe. We saw a glimpse here of May’s sometimes contemptuous view of the public that would reveal itself on more than one occasion throughout the campaign.
After that inauspicious start, there has been little sign of improvement in the tone and substance of this election. The Conservative Party’s strategy appears to be to simply repeat the mantra of “strong and stable leadership”, and hide May from the press and public as much as possible, until the whole frightful business is over with. While from the other side we have a farcical state of affairs in which Labour MP’s are not just leaving their leader off their campaign literature, but actively distancing themselves from him. Lifelong Labour voters who are repelled by Mr Corbyn have been reassured by some party activists and candidates that they can safely vote for Labour on June 8th without endorsing a Corbyn government. This is transparent nonsense, as it’s obviously the case that if enough labour MPs are elected to form a majority in the House of Commons, the Labour leader would then become Prime Minister.
Yet one can’t blame them for trying. While principled Labour MP’s were working hard trying to save their seats, shadow chancellor John McDonnell thought what the election effort really needed was for him to be photographed flanked by Communist and Assadist flags at a parade in central London. Corbyn added to this needless sabotage by brazenly appointing Andrew Murray to the campaign team, a man with an appalling record of supporting dictators and making apologies for Islamic extremism. Meanwhile, the Corbynista Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbott had a disastrous day trying to explain her policing policy to the press, another self-inflicted wound which tweaked Labour’s Achilles heel by reinforcing the notion of a party that can’t be trusted with public spending.
Corbyn’s largely middle class fan-base have constructed a bubble for themselves on social media every bit as absurd as “Cleggmania” or the “Milifandom”. In this cosy little world, Corbyn is the unspun man of principle who has spent his life fighting for social justice. “Jeremy”, as he must always be called, nobly soldiers on despite facing a concerted campaign to smear his good name by a nefarious cabal of vested interests (this conspiracy ranges from BBC journalists to left-wing Labour MPs who have the audacity to disagree with him). It is an abject lesson in projection; of seeing in someone what you desperately want to see. In reality, Corbyn is an inadequate, humourless crank who was lucky to even be a backbench MP, a position he used to further such virtuous causes as denial of the genocide in Kosovo. For all the endless and tiresome complaints from his supporters about the media’s treatment of the Labour leader, he hasn’t actually had that bad a ride so far. When one considers how evidently unsuited he is for high office it could have been a lot worse. For instance, this week he went on live television and made the preposterous assertion that Osama bin Laden should have been “arrested” by the US Navy SEALS who stormed the terrorist leaders’ compound. You will recall this operation took place in the dead of night under gunfire, and was targeting a man who was an avowed proponent of martyrdom through suicide bombing. Corbyn was rewarded for this crass masochism not with the scorn it deserved, but warm applause from the studio audience!
Indeed, ever since Theresa May’s calamitous manifesto U-turn on social care policy, growing rumblings have suggested that this election may not be a foregone conclusion after all. It remains toweringly unlikely, but it is now at least possible to picture waking up on June 9th to see Prime Minister Corbyn standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street. This, more than anything else, reveals why the Labour leader and his enablers deserve to burn in the hottest sector of hell for all eternity. With a credible, competent candidate, this election might – just might – have been winnable for the Labour Party. The Conservatives deserve to pay for gambling on Brexit. They should be made to suffer for six apparently pointless years of debilitating public spending cuts (I say pointless because George Osborne’s central objective of a balanced budget now seems to have been sharply abandoned). Their astonishing hubris, acts of breathtaking irresponsibility like appointing Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary, give the impression of a party almost begging to be given a short, sharp shock by the voters. Instead, the polls still indicate a comfortable win for Theresa May, despite the recent flurry of excitement about an upset.
Do not misunderstand me. It is not my contention that the pre-Referendum age was some blessed period of joy and abundance. Another four years of centre-right rule by Etonians would hardly have been something to celebrate. And from a radical point of view it is perhaps no bad thing for the political system to be given a good shake up. A good crisis should never go to waste, and all that.
Nevertheless, this election has laid bare an Establishment undergoing a nervous breakdown, bothering the people once again with its private grief. This charade of an election demeans us as a country and diminishes our democracy. For all the exhortations that we must exercise our right to vote, it is really our political leaders – not we citizens – who are guilty of a dereliction of duty. Brexit and the attendant shambles that has already been created at the heart of government endangers this country’s future, while in the real world the NHS is going backwards and wages are at a near-record low. I have always detested the cheap and lazy cynicism of those who claim that there’s no point in voting because “the politicians are all the same”. But for the first time in my adult life I say to hell with them all. I can’t vote for the Tories, Labour has disgraced itself and shown it cares little for what the public think by twice electing a man who is Kryptonite to most voters, and I won’t simply vote for the sake of it (I haven’t mentioned the Liberal Democrats in this column yet, and that basically speaks for itself). Worst of all, one senses it is only once the whole sorry business is concluded in seven days, and attention turns back to the business of extracting us from the EU, that the real horror will begin.