One of the most profound truisms of history is that which rests fate on the head of a pin. Scholars in mid-15th century Constantinople were said to have been so busy debating how many angels could dance on a pin that their city fell to the Turks. A similar notion is there in the old proverb about ‘for want of a nail, the battle was lost’ but it also has a modern variant in the mathematics of complexity and chaos theory. It defies our human sense of fairness that trivial things can hugely affect outcomes but it does not defy our sense of logic. We might not really believe that butterflies cause tsunamis but we also know it’s not entirely false. The future rests precariously on the now and it’s only our psychological need to believe in a natural state of balance that keeps us all reasonably sane.
Yet we also know that history is cruel and it certainly feels that way in the light of Theresa May’s speech in Manchester on Wednesday. The speech will no doubt be remembered in ten or even twenty years time as one of the most unfortunate in politics. It was one of those seminal moments like when Bob Dylan went electric and somebody in the crowd shouted ‘Judas’. That happened in 1966 at the Free Trade Hall that used to stand in Peter Street (its facade remains), just a few hundred yards away from where May spoke. Manchester is quite used to pivotal moments.
There was no ‘Judas’ moment this time, of course, but there was an shameless exhibitionist handing the Prime Minister a P45 during a speech that was meant to help secure the country’s future. This was a speech designed to shore up her support inside the party and provide a vision for the years moving into and through Brexit. It was meant to reassure a nation grown restless beneath the obvious impact that Brexit is already having. It was meant to explain the Tory’s weakened position after the last general election, and why May is still the best leader for a party that might otherwise look towards the rolling disaster known as Boris Johnson or (checking the garlic is still hanging over my windows) the distinguished gentlemen representing the eighteenth century, Mr. Jacob Rees Mogg.
It was not to be. Had one part of the speech gone wrong, it might have been memorable in the short term. Two things going wrong would have made it live long in our collective memory. What happened to May now belongs to the ages in the same way we all remember Neil Kinnock’s famous ‘All Right!’ speech. It really was that bad.
It would be unfair, though, to blame May for yesterday’s series of misadventures. Any of us can catch a cold (as you’d witness if you could see me now) and any one of us would struggle to give a serious political speech whilst suffering postnasal drip. It’s also unfair to think that May had anything to do with the set falling apart ( ‘an ef off from the Tories’ as wits described it). As to the interruption by a prankster, May handled it well even if her bodyguard didn’t treat the interloper with the same sinew twisting force he might have enjoyed applying had that interloper been dressed more like a Trotskyite and less like an investment banker.
The problem is that the combination of the three elements conspired to remind us that Theresa May really is a Prime Minister in crisis. Even more than that: it reminded us that the very Conservative Party is in a place it hasn’t been for, arguably, decades. Many of the conference sessions were half empty and seats vacated more than they were used. This is a party that is singularly failing to attract the young (student tickets priced at a few hundred quid no doubt contributes to that) and the belief that youth will eventually come around to them one youth become middle aged is naive. In the meantime, Jeremy Corbyn is riding a wave of popularity. Many things can be said about the recent Labour Party conference but among the few good things was the attendance. If these things are to be measured by bums on seats, the Tories are losing badly.
Part of the Conservatives’ problem has been manifest for many years but largely ignored. They are singularly out of touch with vast parts of the country; both geographically as well as economically. May attempted to rectify that at the last election, though her critics argue that this came at the expense of support in traditionally strong areas in the south. Conservatives are also only too happy to indulge the illusion that Britain is no longer a country with a strongly identifiable class system. It’s an often repeated statement that we are now a classless nation. The rejoinder to that is: if you think that class isn’t important in Britain, you are probably middle class. The view from the grubby end of Britain is very different.
Class, for example, drove the Brexit vote. Working class voters who voted for Brexit did so because they had a heightened sense of alienation inside their culture. At the bottom, where the low skilled are found, jobs are often filled by migrant workers. Zero hour contracts, a weakening of workers’ rights, and extremely low pay make for a climate of dissent. The great promise of free markets has not served everybody equally and it is a dissent that UKIP (specifically Nigel Farage) understood so well. He voiced opinions that were rarely heard in the media but often heard in Labour clubs and bus stops or among the crowds of pensioners who sit outside the Post Office on a Monday morning.
Labour, of course, are not without problems of their own. Labour’s vote has traditionally been motivated by distrust of the rich but, for the moment, that mistrust is directed towards the immigrant. The old political dynamics are suspended. Even if Labour wanted to oppose Brexit, they are restricted by their natural blue collar base who are more likely to be deeply suspicious of cosmopolitanism and, more broadly, identity politics. Of course, the bigger question is if a weakening pound and increasing food prices will change public opinion. Understanding the actual mood of voters is the challenge that Labour now faces and which, in the short term, continues to hold it back from complete electoral victory.
The Tories, meanwhile, are hanging on by their teeth, largely due Labour’s inability to exploit the government’s weakness. They are already looking ready to enjoy another spasm of self-doubt, should the Prime Minister fall. May has proved ineffective because she never had a strong vision. Her maiden speech from the steps of Downing Street remains one of British politics’ great unfulfilled promises. Margaret Thatcher’s success always lay in reaching down to the working classes and offering them a hand to prosperity. Subsequent Conservative governments have tried to do the same but, if the rhetoric was aspirational, the policy of ‘Austerity’ was certainly not. In her conference speech, May hinted that she at last understands this. Her speech borrowed heavily from past Labour manifestos in areas of housing, energy pricing, mental health, and student loans. Her problem is that it all comes too late.
Which brings us back to the pinhead of history. In this case, the pinhead was Simon Brodkin (aka Lee Nelson) and it would be a injustice of the biggest order if British history should turn on this most moronic of moments. He has a history of ‘pranks’ which aren’t so much pranks but acts of disruption. A prank should do no harm. A prank is joyous and funny. A true prank makes the world a better place. A prank is not simply disrupting a headliner’s Glastonbury set, as Brodkin did when he ran on and interrupted Kanye West a season or two ago. It most certainly wasn’t interrupting an important political speech with his adolescent joke. If you wouldn’t want him to do that to Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable, or [insert your party leader of choice], then you shouldn’t have wanted him to do it to May. These matters are too important. When the politics are over, people’s lives will be left affected. If [insert the Tories’ worst option – Jacob Rees Mogg] soon walks into Downing Street as the leader of this country, remember the fun you had seeing Brodkin hamming it up for the cameras.