May on the brink
As the resignations and scandals pile up, Paul Demarty wonders how long this dysfunctional government can last
When last we addressed the parlous state of the Conservative government, we asked whether Theresa May might be cursed. Nothing that has transpired in the intervening weeks has dispelled that impression at all. Somewhere in Britain - possibly in the office of the Evening Standard? - there is a voodoo doll with a short haircut and some very expensive trousers. The pins get closer, every day, to its heart.
Where to start? Perhaps with the most serious affair - the downfall of Priti Patel, until last Wednesday secretary of state for international development, after it was revealed quite how fun her recent ‘holiday’ in Israel was, meeting all kinds of no doubt charming ministers and officials, up to Netanyahu himself (strictly socially, of course).
Details emerged of a plan to funnel some of her aid budget - whose very existence, as a swivel-eyed Thatcherite, she resents - to Israeli field hospitals in the Golan Heights. These exist notionally to treat Syrian refugees, but have in practice served as a means of supporting some of the fruitier forces fighting Bashar al-Assad’s government. Perhaps the latter plot to treat the wounds of Salafist lunatics with British taxpayers’ money was the reason she failed to inform the foreign office of the true nature of her visit; in the end, it raised enough questions to make her position untenable and force her resignation, although she has gathered support from the Israeli embassy’s most loyal friends.
While Patel has got into trouble for pretending to be on holiday when she was not, foreign secretary Boris Johnson has landed himself in hot water for claiming somebody was not on holiday, when apparently she was. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe now rots in Iran’s Evin prison, apparently in poor health, for alleged ‘soft regime change’ activities. She is formerly of the Beeb, and now works for Reuters’s charitable arm, on the basis of which fact Johnson either blew the gaff on her true mission, if you are a trigger-happy Iranian prosecutor, or blundered her into jail on false charges, if you are an anxious Mr Ratcliffe.
So far Johnson’s resignation has not been tendered over this affair - indeed Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family is not officially after his head anyway, seeing as how, from their point of view, Tory fratricide is something of a distraction from the matter at hand. Frankly, however, we are amazed that he has made it through the ‘Pestminster’ scandal intact, given how notoriously prolific Boris is alleged to be with his johnson. More’s the pity for May, that it somehow has not troubled the man who is said to be both the most promiscuous and tendentially troublesome in her cabinet, but has cut a swathe through the rest of it. Michael Fallon, of course, is gone, after a series of allegations; Damian Green yet survives, after it emerged that ‘extreme’ pornography was found on his computer after a police raid in 2008 (Green had leaked embarrassing migration numbers to the press).
There are ‘real’ stories behind all these things, of course. The Damian Green porn business is wholly confected, but has leverage because of the current high visibility of sexual harassment scandals - and, of course, comes on top of his alleged brush with Kate Maltby’s knee. The case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe is incomprehensible except against the background of the beat of the war-drums for Iranian blood in many quarters. With tensions so high, incidents like this are inevitable. And Patel’s bizarre escapade in Israel tells us something about the confusion and hypocrisy of US-UK policy in the Middle East, and acts as yet another reminder that the forces of the ‘free world’ are hardly playing a straight bat, when it comes to their supposedly irreconcilable hostility to Islamic State and friends.
Yet it is not their ‘serious’ import as individual issues that concern us here, but rather what they tell us about the state of the Conservative Party at this most embarrassing conjuncture. No world event, apparently, does not leave its mark on this fragile arrangement. It seems almost that, in theory, the cabinet is capable for the time being of operating sensibly, as long as nothing goes wrong (leaving Johnson aside for a moment); but the rank-and-file supporters of the various cabinet factions are certainly not reconciled to the presence of whatever hated enemy it happens to be in some post or another, so they all keep getting dragged into the strife anyway.
So we may put Green’s discomfort in part down to Brexiteer manoeuvres against the ‘remoaners’; and Johnson’s to the vigorous efforts of the likes of George ‘Freezer’ Osborne, whose Evening Standard is increasingly turned over entirely to the task of overthrowing the government as an act of petty revenge on the part of its bloodthirsty editor. Patel’s case is a little more peculiar, given the particular significance of the Israel-Palestine situation in the politics of the imperial centres; her friends claim that she is the victim of the Arabists in the foreign office, which seems a peculiarly archaic sort of bogeyperson; as a May-friendly Brexiteer, however, who knows? Any number of potential enemies present themselves.
As we have remarked before, the incongruity of this picture is pretty fundamental - we face a Tory Party whose historic function is to be the political glue that holds the kingdom together, but whose present state is very nearly the opposite. It is now such a tedious cliché to call May’s government “weak and wobbly” (as a direct inversion of her one-time catchphrase, “strong and stable”) that barely anyone does so any more at all. It is a shame, for a better description has yet to be discovered, and it is reconfirmed every passing day.
How on earth is such a party useful to the smooth progress of the British state? Indeed, it is not. With Brexit looking rockier by the day, the time is surely right for the changing of the guard. The problem on this front is well known - one of the pre-existing weaknesses of the state establishment is its loss of the Labour Party, when it appeared so very much to be entirely in its gift. Thus the present predicament - no faction of the Conservative Party looks ready to deliver the sort of authority needed at a very risky moment, but nor is the Labour Party in the hands of such people who can be called reliable.
What, then, to do? Alas! - no small part of the present permanent farce is that there is no attractive answer. Jeremy Corbyn is doing his level best to look coquettish - he contributed a vast op-ed to TheSunday Times arguing that only he, of the plausible options on offer, can deliver a Brexit that is not a national disaster from the point of view of the capitalist class. He is unlikely to be trusted, however, for the ruling class still recalls his more fulsomely bearded days, with their hymns of praise for Irish freedom and the like. But none of the Tory alternatives look terribly likely either. The ‘sensible’ ones are despised by the rank and file, and can hardly expect a free shot at the top job, should it somehow (suspend your disbelief!) become free. Of the notional insurgents, Johnson is the most reasonable, which says it all. Beyond him are the plain old ranters, like the beyond-parody recusant, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who can hardly be relied on to deliver on the ‘national interest’ they so keenly adore, but of which they understand bugger all.
As the British establishment covers its eyes in shame, so does the collective Eurocracy in frustration. There is a real chance that Brexit negotiations will collapse for no better reason than nobody can be found on the British side with the authority to negotiate, or the individual interest in even appearing to do so in good faith. The leaks from their side increasingly base themselves on the assumption that collapse is inevitable, and that Europe will have to make the best of it. Whatever Rees-Mogg thinks in the paroxysms of his wet dreams about Agincourt, we expect that nos amis et amies over the water will shake out just fine.
The political crisis in Britain, however, shows all the signs of running and running.