May’s platitudinous waffling bore more than a passing resemblance to those of Margaret Thatcher when she misappropriated St Francis of Assisi in May 1979. In both cases they sounded emollient and anxious to draw a line under the past. In Thatcher’s case this was clearly necessary, as her misguided and at times malevolent politics required a Year Zero to be declared. In May’s case she has to pretend that the vandalism of the referendum and the self-harm it is unleashing belong to the previous era where putting party before people was the order of the day.
This would be easier if it were true. In May’s history there is no real evidence of anything beyond authoritarianism and self-regard, and she will be reminded of her tendencies from the left. For the Tory right, flirting with the racist and neofascist extremes that feed UKIP and their extremist fellow-travellers, even May’s vileness will not be sufficient to convince them that she is sufficiently pliable, so all her administration will be an effort to avoid falling foul of the self-seeking dolts whose actions have brought both their party and the country to the brink of implosion.
May has not made any self-aware statements to the effect that she has to earn any legitimacy. She exhibits the standard Tory trait of entitlement and an unwillingness to acknowledge that government is by consent, not by fiat. This may have worked for Thatcher in the 1980s, but shifts in institutions, politics and the tenuous nature of Tory power over vast swathes of the country means that she needs to tread with extreme caution in the face of insurrection and empowerment.
Not a word, therefore, around the democratic deficits across a nation state whose legitimacy is in doubt as never before. Not a word to recognise that the referendum result was not a conclusive mandate, even had it been achieved through legitimate argument. Not a word to those who are disenfranchised, fearful and dislocated. Not a word to calm the disgusting passions of the street-corner racists. Had it not been for the torrent of bullshit, she would have made a convincing Trappist,
The problems that she inherits are intractable, but a genuine leader would be looking to mitigate and share the burdens. Notwithstanding the potential impact on Northern Ireland and the unraveling of the peace process, worked for across the political spectrum and wrecked by another Theresa, or the rekindling of the Scottish independence campaign far beyond the boundaries of the SNP, both of which would be causing any politician with a conscience sleepless nights, she is concentrating on an English nationalism which pits democracy and the rule of law against Tory hegemony.
As a confidence trick this is both breathtaking and predictable. With no programme, no electoral accountability and not even an inkling that this is risible and dangerous, we are moving into territory where even an imperfect democracy is under threat. May’s tactic acceptance of the divine right of the Tories to govern will be her undoing, as it was for Gordon Brown (whose accession to the premiership May regarded as an outrage without a General Election), especially as she will be impotent to deliver either prosperity or security.
This is not a legitimate government. It has legal power. It maintains the charade of continuity within an “unwritten constitution” that will be seen as a means of controlling the plebs. Its mandate does not extend across its presumptive jurisdiction, either morally or In terms of securing the discourse, and she will doubtless be preparing for repression rather than emollients.
May’s hope for survival rests solely on the continuing absence of organised opposition. Labour’s absence from the field has allowed her to usurp without real challenge. The internal convulsions of Labour politics are not my direct concern, but for the leader of the principal opposition party not to be touring the news studios on the night of another Tory coup is a failure of duty and ambition. The Cuba Solidarity Campaign may have gained by his presence, but those who seek balance and challenge as a tsunami unfolds may draw conclusions as to his priorities.
Resistance, repulsion and challenge will continue, and be invigorated. May presents herself as a safe pair of hands, whereas her instincts are dominated by the far right, her radicalism as bogus as any other Tory talking about privilege. She has come to power as her certainties collapse and from early indications her ability to cope and to restore even a vestige of order are as minimal as her predecessor’s. It has a morbid fascination. As with Major, she will be in office but not in power.