On GE2017

by Barendina Smedley

I have only ever heard one story that makes Theresa May sound like a genuinely good person. The source for it is an old friend from university days. We met through CUCA, the Cambridge University Conservative Association. My friend is still a Tory, whereas I gave up on the party roughly thirty years later during the course of May’s 2016 conference speech — a bumpy journey recalled at some length here.

Anyway, the story involves a visit by my friend to a speaker meeting organised by her local Conservative association. At the time, my friend was trying to balance a career as a corporate lawyer with her demanding role as the mother of an infant and a degree of continued political engagement, and in a slightly desperate moment of multi-tasking, brought her baby along to the meeting with her. In the normal way of these things, as soon as the distinguished guest began speaking, the baby kicked off. My friend tried to calm the baby by breastfeeding him/her, as discreetly as possible. For this, she was rewarded with a range of disapproving looks from the mostly elderly, entirely disapproving audience. In the car-park afterwards, preparing to leave, my friend was feeling as many of us may have felt under similar circumstances — angry, defensive, embarrassed — maybe even a bit tearful. Getting into her car, then, she noticed the speaker hurrying out towards her, apparently anxious for a word. Rather to my friend’s surprise, the speaker could not have been more supportive — praising the qualities of the baby, talking about how hard it must be to balance work and family, unhappy at the audience reaction and passionately defending my friend’s decision to breastfeed in a public place.

The speaker was, of course, Theresa May. I am repeating this story in the interest of scrupulous fairness. Having said that, though, let’s remember that after my thirty years in the party, this is literally the only positive story I have ever heard about Theresa May. The other stories mostly revolve around tone-deafness, rigidity, humourlessness. Often there is a degree of intellectual limitation in the mix as well. Not one of these stories suggests that May got where she is through anything other than a dogged, principle-free, vindictive, deeply joyless strand of personal ambition. Nor do any of them imply that she has much to offer either the Tory party or the United Kingdom.

Thus it is surprising that the Tories somehow ended up with a general election campaign designed to rely primarily on May’s personal appeal coupled with the perceived unattractiveness of her opponents — a campaign contrived without much input from other senior party figures, defensive where not painfully robotic in the face of media interest, producing an appearance of extreme arrogance coupled with reflexive paranoia. It’s all been a mess of soundbites, U-turns, cynical Red Tory posing and attempts to avoid proper scrutiny. None of this is a great look, but neither is it a surprise, coming from May. Even if, as is probably more likely than not, May scrapes a reasonable majority — the ’60 to 100′ range seems popular at the moment — the effect of the campaign will have been to make the average voter like her even less than was the case before. The dysfunctionality that was once simply an open secret within the Tory party, shared occasionally amongst the political classes, is now an open secret. She just isn’t up to it.

But then a recurrent feature of May’s long march to power has been good luck when it comes to her enemies. Her most obvious claim to fame last summer, the one that eased her way almost painlessly into Downing Street, was that she was neither Andrea Leadsom nor Michael Gove. At present, it is hard to avoid wondering how she would doing if pitched against Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umuna, Sadiq Khan or a pre-lapsarian Nick Clegg, let alone an actual John Smith or Tony Blair. As it is, the current Labour leader — long-term friend of Hamas and the IRA, yes, but perhaps even more to the point, for decades the long-term enemy of the majority of the Labour Party — continues to advance against her, as much through his (relatively) charm as anything else. This should ring a whole carillon of alarm bells.

As for Tim Farron, the failure of his campaign to achieve proper traction is complicated, in some ways surprising and also very sad. His message has been well-defined, robust and honourable — strongly anti-Brexit, pro-civil rights, pro-immigration — but never quite recovered from a manufactured row over his views on sexuality. This is odd, not least because while in recent times May has taken a relatively liberal stance on LGBT issues, this was not always the case. More broadly, the whole thing points to culpable mischief-making on the part of journalists who ought to know better.

Liberalism is, after all, in large part about defending the rights of others to get up to things one might or might not find particularly edifying, so there’s a strong sense in which Farron’s personal view matter far less than those of other candidates. Yet despite this, as an evangelical Christian, Farron was forced to explain, defend and generally wrap himself in his personal religious convictions in a way that is hugely unusual these days, and not particularly desirable, either. No such thing was required of May, or indeed any other candidate. The last time I remember such a painful interrogation on matters of faith was during the mayoral campaign of Sadiq Khan, a proud and pious British Muslim who has gone on to prove himself a stalwart champion of LGBT activism. Boris Johnson, in contrast, is, on the rare occasions when he is asked about his personal faith, allowed to get away with flippant answers, and also, during his time as mayor, managed to miss London’s Pride celebrations for five years in a row.

But then in all sorts of ways, the campaign has played itself out rather oddly.

One grim recurrent theme has been terrorist violence, first in Manchester, then near London Bridge. In the first, an IS-inspired youth walked into the exit area of an Ariana Grande concert and, more due to the tightly enclosed space than to any sophistication on the part of his ad-hoc device, managed to kill 23 people, many of them also very young. Manchester, as anyone might have predicted, responded with warmth, solidarity, resilience and plenty of music. In the second attack, three relatively young men first drove a van into some people on London Bridge, then went on to Borough Market where, on a warm June evening, the usual international, diverse, tolerant group of Londoners was enjoying a night out. The three men set about stabbing people, but were clearly frustrated in their ambitions first by ordinary bystanders, who fought them off and tended the wounded, and then by the police, who first engaged the attackers unarmed, then within eight minutes of the start of the assault had shot all three dead.

Unspeakably terrible though it must have been for those caught up in it, this latter attack may well live long in London folklore, less for its horror — for in a sense it was not, in terrorist terms, a ‘successful’ project, murdering eight innocent people at the cost of three terrorist lives — than for what it has to say about reserves of toughness and courage on the part of an average London crowd. Long after the names and faces of those three pointless killers are forgotten, many of us, I suspect, will remember Florin Morariu, the Romanian baker who ran after the attackers, chasing them and throwing crates at them, right up to the point when the police started firing. We will remember Richard Angel, a policy wonk who, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks which had taken place all around him, expressed a desire to return to the restaurant where he had been dining so that he could pay his bill, as well as a determination to carry on as normal: ‘If me having a G&T in a nice bar, flirting with handsome men, upsets [terrorists] — I’m going to do it more’. And then who can forget Roy Larner, a middle-aged chap who attempted to fight off the attackers and their 12-inch knives with his bare hands, all the while shouting ‘Fuck you, I’m Millwall’? Let’s recall, too, that during these crucial minutes, the three attackers were all wearing what looked very much like suicide belts, which only later were shown to be dummies. Taken in aggregate, this is exactly my London. And if the terrorists were trying to discourage Mancunians or Londoners or anyone else here from living their normal lives, they have, yet again, pretty much as always, failed spectacularly.

These terrorist attacks have, however, inflected the campaign’s later stages. Once upon a time, conventional wisdom would have insisted that events of this type should have benefited the Tories, not least a right-wing ex home secretary, one of whose few deep pleasures in life seems to be attempting to deport Islamists, especially those who love their cats. Similarly, terrorist attacks should not have played in favour of a left-wing Labour leader who has shared platforms with a rich variety of terrorists over the years, Islamists not excluded. And yet, so magnificent and capacious has bee the ineptitude of May’s campaign that in fact the impossible has happened, and the Tories finds themselves struggling with this issue, too.

Sections of the media, admittedly, have done what they could to help May. They have pressed Corbyn, for instance, on his well-known scruples regarding a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. Yet in doing this, rather as was the case with Farron’s liberalism, people who ought to know better have glossed over distinctions that may well be crucially important to the politician in question. For while there is currently a sloppy inclination to use ‘shoot to kill’ as a synonym for a willingness to allow the police to use lethal force in a situation wherein lives appear to be imminently at risk, it’s more than possible that for a man of Corbyn’s vintage and associations, ‘shoot to kill’ conjures up something else altogether:  the troubled Stalker Inquiry, Death on the Rock, permission to shoot dead a suspect on sight without any warning and regardless of context. Now, while regular readers of this blog will realise that Corbyn and I see the whole Northern Ireland issue rather differently, c.f. this, all the same, I actually do agree with him that there is more to the matter of extra-judicial killing, whether on balance one accepts the need for it or not, than a crude litmus-test of patriotism. Indeed, reflecting on this, one may go on to wonder whether Corbyn’s time-worn historical tendresse for Irish Republican murderers is more of an issue — especially now that the greatest threat to peace and stability in the Province is in so clearly the small print of Brexit, with its hard borders and collapse in shared intelligence structures — than May’s casual dismissal of the need for basic civil liberties. I certainly know which one worries me more.

Meanwhile, May is hated by the police, whose funding and numbers she cut, charmlessly and ruthlessly, during her sojourn as home secretary 2010-2016. This whole story possibly tells us something about her ability to negotiate, take on board useful criticisms, change tactics if necessary, find common ground with others, achieve a mutually beneficial outcome — none of which is exactly heartening news regarding Brexit. All too often in her life, May seems to frame situations as a ‘fight’, as something ‘clear’ or ‘simple’, with an outcome that can only mean victory for one, defeat for the other. This is less the instinct of any successful deal-maker than it is a sort of Nietzsche-for-idiots executed by a vindictive, unconfident person of limited abilities, limited vision, unlimited reflexive defensiveness.

The other odd thing about this election campaign is the way in which those central figures from its early days — the voters who appear to have abandoned a post-Farage UKIP, without finding an obvious home elsewhere — have slightly vanished from the narrative. Of course, neither the Tories nor Labour have forgotten them, and continue to pursue them.

Corbyn brings them, by way of tribute, the cosy, Old Labour familiarity of the apparently unscripted, emotive, open-air speeches he clearly hugely enjoys, and indeed delivers very well. He speaks to an ageing but still-present historical awareness of vanishing industry, struggles over mines or shipyards, embattled communal spirit. At these moments Corbyn is funny, fluent, comfortable — because he, too, is ageing, a veteran of battles that to much of his electorate are less the stuff of experience than of mythic folklore. But then selling romantic nostalgia has got Corbyn a long way in life, and it would be wrong to write him off.

May, in contrast, struggles more with campaigning. She is, of course, happy enough to reel off her terrifying Red Tory message, if only because she so clearly believes that forcing people to accept policies they dislike and distrust is somehow ‘strong’ and ‘clear’, hence worth doing almost as an end in itself. But she patently dislikes meeting ordinary people. Her visit on Tuesday to a bakery in Fleetwood, Lancashire — where she notionally received a ‘tough grilling’ from ‘ordinary voters’, at least according to the Twitter timeline of the Sun‘s political editor — was slightly let down when photos showed all those ‘ordinary voters’ all wearing blue rosettes. Well, who knows — I have never enjoyed the honour of breakfast in Fleetwood. Perhaps blue rosettes are de rigeur there. Perhaps it’s an authentic local thing. Or, alternatively, perhaps May’s campaign is so abjectly, amateurishly hopeless that the ‘ordinary people’ cobbled together for this media opportunity weren’t told to remove their incriminating insignia first — or even to wear them only under their disguises, a la The Eagle Has Landed.

What one never sees, at any rate, are images of May addressing crowds of thousands, out in the open air as her opponent so often does, letting herself in for heckling or abuse. Instead, her natural environment seems to be the smaller warehouse, the after-hours office facility cleansed of its normal inhabitants, the carefully-controlled environment that is simultaneously never quite controlled enough. She perhaps hopes that this sense of distance, this quasi-presidential disdain for unfiltered engagement and unscripted encounters, this progress of the Empress Theresa through her lands and dominions will somehow create a sense of strength, stability and, well, whatever else it is that the two advisors to whom she ever listens — Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, only possibly augmented by Lynton Crosby — have told her it is that these elusive, hard-to-read ex-Kippers probably want.

It is quite a remarkable by-product of democracy that two major parties should have to pursue the group of people who, by definition, admired Farage, voted for Brexit, and now are so fatally cut from their moorings as to be unsure whether to back a right-wing Tory or a left-wing Labour leader. But it is also remarkable that no one seems sure, even now, which way these pivotal political actors are likely to jump, which is perhaps why we have mostly stopped talking about them.

Meanwhile, the Tories — PPCs, constituency workers, bog-standard voters — have to come to grips with their campaign, their leader, their future as a party. These days I am much more detached from the party than ever before, but I don’t get the sense that anyone’s esteem for May is increasing as the days go by. The decision to concoct a manifesto without consulting even senior party members may prove, in hindsight, a particularly egregious own goal.

And no, the eventual response to that will not be, as non-Tories invariably assume, the apotheosis of Boris. We have been here before. It is not possible, under present-day party rules, to become leader of Tories without some sort of support from the parliamentary party, and it has been proved to everyone’s satisfaction that Boris is, by the people who know him and work with him, generally dismissed as a buffoon, a blow-hard fool, or even that contemptible thing, a failed journalist. If and when this election goes all wrong, and May is held to account for it, I have no idea who her successor will be. The official Cameron / Osborne continuity candidate, for instance, has yet to be anointed. But it’s safe to say that May’s successor will not be e.g. a fat Old Etonian who still dines out on his deeply ordinary Oxbridge 2:1 and who once promised to aid an attempt to have a News of the World journalist, Stuart Collier, beaten up. So that narrows the field a bit at least.

All this, however, is too long a glimpse into what promises to be an unrewarding, unedifying near future. What of tomorrow?

There are two seats that matter to me personally. The first is the Cities of London & Westminster, where I am registered. There, I will vote for Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate.

This was an easy decision. Our recent MP, Mark Field, is a Tory. He is neither a bad man nor a bad politician. On the two occasions I’ve ever contacted him as a constituent, I’ve been favourably impressed by his replies — always more bespoke, genuine and serious than the fobb-off I’d been expecting. In 2008, a time when denouncing bankers was even more fashionable than usual, Mark was loud in his insistence that the City of London contributes to our national well-being in all sorts of ways. This showed nerve, and I admired it. More recently, though, Mark has supported Brexit. This is perverse. The vast majority of his constituency voted against it. That is because their jobs, their relationships, their whole way of life depend upon EU membership. So do the defence and security relationships that (mostly) keep us safe, the immigration rules that make our city a diverse, vibrant and successful one, the sense of bohemian, hipsterish inclusiveness that for centuries has defined my Soho in the face of nativism, xenophobia, Mayism. So while I like Mark, and hope that someday he sees sense, his vote for May’s hard Brexit — a hard Brexit backed by no electoral mandate, purely the stuff of her own internal party anxieties — was a deal-breaker. As I told the absolutely sweet, really professional Tory survey canvasser who had the bad luck to pitch up on my doorstep, May’s 2016 conference speech, coupled with Mark’s support for an unwarranted hard Brexit, was the end.

In contrast, Bridget Fox, our local LibDem candidate, has impressed me. She is intelligent, active, in tune with what many long-time Soho residents are feeling right now. Our interactions on social media lead me to believe that she will be a responsive, perceptive, hard-working constituency MP. Also, the LibDems’ national campaign has addressed many of my concerns about our present political situation. Who are my favourite Soho people? Well, two of them are at my local coffee shop, Greg and Marina, both Hungarian by birth. Bridget, if you wonder why you are getting my vote, this is part of the reason. Mark, if you wonder why, as someone who has worked for your party for thirty or more years, I am now opposing it, think of Greg and Marina. Or think of my son’s multi-cultural, multi-faith, richly international school. Or think of Soho’s great history of accepting, welcoming and finding the best in its international population. Soho is not, and will never be, a province of your pal May’s mean-spirited, mean-minded Little England.

The other constituency that matters to me, where I spend at least half my time, is North Norfolk. Here, LibDem Norman Lamb is fighting off a very determined assault by a Tory contender.

Norman Lamb is a great MP. This incandescent truth is taken as a matter of fact by pretty much everyone locally, at least in private, completely regardless of party allegiance. Lamb is, after all, that rare thing, an MP who will fight for his constituents’ interests with the most enormous seriousness, someone who is in the game less for his own career potential than to help others. Furthermore, his work on mental health issues, informed by his own personal experience as well as years of constituency work, has won him respect across partisan boundaries. If I were allowed to create my own a la carte government — and how I should like to manufacture my own personal Coalition of Chaos! — I’d make Lamb Minister for Mental Health, with a responsibility for identifying and supporting mental health solutions across different departmental portfolios. Lamb, however, faces a very tough fight, and if he loses this evening, it’s not just North Norfolk that will be the poorer for it.

Another thing that simplified my choices was the logic of tactical voting. In North Norfolk Lamb, a LibDem, is the incumbent MP, with the Tories as his main challengers. In the Cities of London & Westminster, our sitting MP is a Tory, and although historically Labour have been the main threat, given the Brexit context, it seems likely that at least some Tories will wish to express their ongoing support for Remain by voting LibDem, which in any case is possibly an easier transition than making the jump to full-on, Corbynite Labour, which even some lifetime Labour supporters struggle to accept. And indeed, it feels very good to support a proudly anti-Brexit party. Having said that, though, if I were registered in some other seat and the LibDems weren’t plausible challengers, I can easily imagine voting for an anti-Brexit, ‘moderate’ Labour candidate.

Yet even if I were pro Brexit, which I am not, looking at the state of this election campaign, the narrowness of vision and the sloppiness of execution, why would I trust May to organise buying a sandwich, let alone leading her country through the most complicated set of trade, defence and security negotiations in living memory? So I can’t really see why most Tories would, if they thought about it, justify voting Tory this time, either.

In that way, too, the present election is rather an odd one. The splits within parties are surely almost as significant as the rifts between them. Both Tories and Labour supporters could be excused for believing that their own parties have been hijacked by dangerous extremists. This encourages paradoxes. A friend of mine, whose political judgement I admire enormously, is voting LibDem — but has also done his bit to help the campaigns of specific candidates from the Labour, LibDem and Conservative parties. His logic is that by supporting individuals who reflect his own priorities — anti-Brexit, pro-LGBT, generally progressive but also pragmatic — he can exert a positive influence in all these parties. Who knows? He may well be right.

Some, of course, will argue that voting LibDem is a wasted vote. It is, admittedly, unlikely that the LibDems will lead the next government. What I really want, truth be told, is precisely that thing May has taken to holding up for our horror and revulsion: a Coalition of Chaos. Corbyn is hardly my dream politician, but that’s all the more reason I’d be much happier seeing his weirder ambitions moderated by the practicalities of having to gather some sort of de facto support from the SNP, Plaid Cymru and, yes, the LibDems. If we have to have a Brexit, I’d rather see the negotiating table staffed with Keir Starmer than with David Davis — but I’d like to think that the LibDems might actually be able to floor the brakes on this ill-considered, deeply misguided project. More broadly, any de facto coalition would have to proceed with a degree of caution, humility and consensus. This modest dose of continental-style politics seems to me, at least, hugely preferable to rule by an arrogant yet insecure May, perpetually pandering to the Eurosceptic rump within her own party. So a vote for the LibDems works from that perspective as well.

When this election was first called, I felt a huge surge of happiness. I knew, even then, that this was irrational. Obviously, the polls at the time favoured the Tories. They were always likely to get back in, perhaps with an impressively engorged majority, which could be presented as a mandate for whatever nonsense May decides to impose on us. But at the same time, there was always at least that faint but delicious hint of possibility: things don’t have to be like this. And even now, after this grisly campaign, I still haven’t completely given up hope that tomorrow may dawn brighter than today did — that, not for the first time in this long Brexit nightmare, events may still be have the capacity to surprise us.

Finally, though, we are left with the unlikely story about Theresa May that prefaced these stray thoughts. What to make of it? I do think, actually, it carries a sort of moral. The reason it makes May seem attractive is that it shows her supporting the outsider, the slightly disenfranchised, the contextually weak against the traditionally strong. Correctly, we warm to this, because it shows one of the ways in which genuine leadership functions.

This has been a nasty campaign in all sorts of ways. The personalised attacks on Farron and Corbyn, intended to distract us, have instead underscored how thin and uncertain any positive Tory message must be. Worse still has been the ongoing targeting of Diane Abbott. Abbott is, clearly, some way to the left of me on pretty much everything. There is no point in pretending that she’s my favourite politician. On the other hand, it is manifestly clear that when it comes to making mistakes, there is one rule for her, and quite a different rule for other high-profile candidates. When May can’t remember whether we give foreign aid to the murderous DPRK regime, when Davis basically gets ripped to shreds by Benn over his total inability to articulate any considered thoughts whatsoever on Brexit, when Corbyn has to look up some figures, when Boris blusters — and, let’s face it, when does Boris ever do anything else other than blustering? — we are never told that they are ‘over-promoted’ or  ‘out of their depth’. Yet oddly, when Abbott stumbles, it is instantly read as a reflection on her worthiness to be where she is, doing her job. The problem, I suspect, is that like very many veteran politicians, Abbot tends to project a tremendous air of entitlement — and while we are fine with that when the entitled one is, say, Kenneth Clark or Paddy Ashdown or John Prescott, suddenly when confronted by a black woman who seems very comfortable with authority, thank you very much, then there’s something problematic about it. Surely, she should have to work harder, prove herself more, seem a bit more grateful, somehow? The fact that Abbott has, basically, been bullied into withdrawing from her role says something deeply unpleasant about our politics.

And yet that unpleasantness is anything but accidental. It’s there, in variant forms, everywhere we look. It’s there in May’s dark hint that it’s somehow the fault of the Muslim community that Islamist terrorism exists — although the more we investigate, the more it becomes clear that ‘the community’ were sedulous in warning the security services regarding these recent terror incidents. It’s there in May’s promise to uphold our way of life by, ahem, upending our civil rights whenever necessary. Most of all, it’s there in the busying wooing of those wretched ex-UKIP voters, in the language and imagery of the Daily Mail, in the people who fund a platform for Katie Hopkins and her shrill reprehensible ilk, in the fearful sense that to be ‘strong’, let alone ‘stable’, we need to stand with the bullying, hectoring, intolerant and proudly ignorant mob against anyone or anything that might provoke their ire or indignation. It is, in short, precisely what May decided not to do, on that evening long ago, when she went out into a car-park to encourage an unhappy young mother.

With hindsight, on that one occasion at least, May made the right choice. We all have a better side and a worse side, a tendency to cut corners, to do the easy thing rather than the right thing. Today, though, I hope the British electorate realise the gravity of the choice confronting them, which is less about party politics than about what sort of people we all want to be, what sort of world we want to leave behind us, and that they vote accordingly.