Monday, 29 May 2017

Theresa May vs People

The British General Election has entered an unexpected phase for the Tories - weak and wobbly, as it has been oft-lampooned these last few days, rather than the strong and stable narrative originally envisaged and carefully packaged and promoted by the dark powers that are party strategist Lynton Crosbie. For even with the pause in campaigning following the Manchester bombing atrocity, the fall of Theresa May's always rather flickering star has continued relentlessly.

First there was the decision to call the election at all after her repeated insistence that there wouldn't be one. Then came a slew of disastrous policy announcements possibly intended to show her as decisive, but in fact radiating the hubris and arrogance at the heart of the Tory agenda: no assurance of no tax rises; dropping the triple lock on pensions; ending free school meals; and of course the utter confusion of new charges for homecare for older people and the inclusion of property in calculations for eligibility - May's attempts to row back (or clarify as she put it) simply served to illuminate her panic.

Given that the central premise of the Tory campaign, and indeed of the whole purpose of the election, was to supposedly cement this allegedly powerful, charismatic and "strong and stable" leader's authority to speak for The Nation ahead of the Brexit negotiations, due to start a few days after the 8 June vote, it is little surprise her ratings have tumbled, with her party sliding along behind, steadily if not as precipitously as its leader.

Corbyn is having a good campaign.
By contrast, Labour's Jeremy Corbyn has been having a good campaign. Polls show that while people's main memory of the Tory manifesto launch is the negativity of the social care plans, Labour's launch of policies such as nationalising the railways, taxing the rich and funding the NHS and abolishing university tuition fees have stuck in the collective mind in very positive ways. Similarly, to the confused surprise of many rightist commentators and the Blairite wing of his own party, Corbyn has often seemed far more calm under pressure than May. Faced with a slew of slanted and at times ill-informed questions by BBC attack-dog Andrew Neil, he parried well, unflustered and measured in his responses, as he also was with a speech linking the threat (not the culpability) of terrorism with adventurist foreign policy. May's coterie's screaming denunciation of the latter highlighted their own weaknesses rater than any of Corbyn's.

But perhaps the most interesting and most telling things about Theresa May these last week's haven't been the policy muddles and the campaign wobbles, but rather what we have learned about her as a person. And given the almost Erdogan-like elevation of her as the National Leader in the Tory campaign, the contrast between the Image and the Reality has rarely been as nakedly apparent as it now is.

Tory candidates around the country have clearly been instructed to subsume themselves to her: in Batley & Spen, a Tory prospect at the start of the campaign though somewhat unlikely now, their candidate at a hustings last week introduced herself not as the Conservative but as "Theresa May's candidate." Similarly, in the tight Labour-held marginal next door in Dewsbury, the Tory candidate's Freepost leaflet has no mention or photograph of the local candidate but simply pictures of the PM and the injunction to "Vote for Theresa May." These are not at all untypical examples of a strategy founded on the Prime Minister's personality; a strategy that is clearly now sited in an earthquake zone.

May - posturing at home; ignored abroad.
Repeatedly and ridiculously central to the Tory message has been an almost Trump-like claim that May would be a "good negotiator" for Britain in the Brexit talks. Yet quite aside from the fact that she will not be undertaking any of the actual negotiation discussions in any case, what evidence is there to support this assertion?

First of all, her actions on Brexit have been, frankly, counter-productive. There was the frankly bizarre threat to withdraw co-operation on counter-terrorist intelligence if she didn't get the trade terms she wants with the EU. Next she followed up with a fictitious and hysterical "crisis" over the sovereignty of Gibraltar where she clearly thought it a good idea to let some of her party grandees mutter loudly about going to war with Spain. No friends nor partners nor any influence were won in either debacle.

A rare occasion - confronted by a real person.
But perhaps the most striking thing about this allegedly smooth operator with her supposed abilities to influence and foster "win-win" situations is just how dreadfully awkward she seems to be with other people. Time and again, other than in carefully scripted, party-planned events which have minimised and even eliminated all human contact, she seems completely outside her comfort zone. Whether guffawing irritably in an extremely laboured manner when challenged in the Commons, or uncomfortably trying to eat chips in the street, or accidentally confronted about the impact of Tory policies on her life by a disabled woman who left her stammering and furious-faced, May gives the impression of a rabbit caught in headlights rather than a cunning fox in the hen coop.

Her refusal to meet any other party leaders in any of the TV debates - she is sending the ever-irritable Amber Rudd to represent her at the BBC one this week - simply adds to the impression of someone ill at ease with people whose views and lives don't accord with her own. In the difficult days ahead, as we negotiate our future arrangements with Europe, we need a Prime Minister with a rather more balanced mindset, someone who can relate to others and seek a lasting, beneficial deal that works for all sides. We need someone able to venture beyond their hermetically-sealed bubble to accept, deal with and embrace people with different views, needs and outlooks to their own. Both within our divided country and as we forge new relationships overseas, we need Government with a genuine human touch.

We do not need someone who fantasises about being Nelson or Churchill. Especially when she is neither.


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