“Brief and empty is the deceptive glory of this world” remarked Jacques de Vitry as he observed the corpse of Pope Innocent III. The man who had tackled the power of the German Emperors, forced King John to surrender his English kingdom, and crushed the Cathar heretics of southern France lay dead, his mortality proven and displayed. No longer God’s representative on earth, Lotario de Conti was merely human like the rest of us. His sudden and unexpected death at the age of 56 mirrors, perhaps, Theresa May’s sudden and unexpected political death at the age of 60.
Initially hailed as a safe pair of hands to steer Britain through the Brexit negotiations, May seemed to represent a refreshing break from the era of Cameronism. The smooth talking and media-friendly performances had been replaced by a stern competence and an unspectacular sincerity. Gordon Brown benefited from the same spike in popularity after he succeeded Tony Blair in 2007. Her immediate rivals had been discredited: the sneering Liam Fox had failed to win any sizeable support from his colleagues, a fact unsurprising to everyone except to Fox himself. Having tied himself to the mast of Cameron’s agenda, George Osborne went down with his master’s ship. Boris Johnson’s ambitions were ended by the hand of Michael Gove, who in turn lost all credibility by plunged a knife into to the back of his former ally. May’s remaining rival, Andrea Leadsom, was soon discovered to be completely mad. The Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn was deemed to be unelectable by all mainstream commentators. May, just like Innocent III in his heyday, seemed to have crushed all of her opponents. But that was before the 8th June 2017.
I can think of no reversal of political fortune quite so dramatic as the one experienced by Mrs May. In February of this year, May was reportedly even more popular than David Beckham (1). Now, she has a disapproval rating of minus 34, comparable to pre-election Corbyn when he was considered unelectable.
The surprising aspect of this collapse in her support is not the fact that it happened, but the pace of it happening. The most obvious cause behind this is that the election campaign and her conduct since April has led to an emerging consensus that she is simply unfit to govern. Her majority usurped by an insurgent Labour party, May now relies on a party aptly described by Frankie Boyle as the ‘political wing of the Old Testament’ to stay in power. The Democratic Unionist Party are the closest we have in Britain to the right wing of American politics- anti-abortion, anti-women, anti-LBGT, and associated with terrorists. Regardless of party allegiance, one cannot deny that this effort by Theresa May to cling on to power are a clear and present danger to the Northern Ireland peace process. Gerry Adams has already made clear that the Conservative government’s deal with the DUP is in breach of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, where the British and Irish governments agreed to strict neutrality in the conflict. With pro-Republican parties now holding the majority of Northern Irish seats, events there have the potential to turn very ugly indeed (3). To have potentially sacrificed this delicate and historic peace merely to retain her grip on power reveals an appalling distortion of priorities on May’s part. A Prime Minister who puts her own political concerns above that of the national interest should not be Prime Minister for long.
Similarly, her handling of the recent Grenfell tragedy can only be described as inhumane. Escorted by police and security, May visited the area of the disaster but refused to meet or converse with the victims or locals. This reflected very badly on her character. Can we trust May to be brave in the face of Putin, Brexit and Trump when she is too cowardly to face the poorer citizens of her own country? This behaviour was nothing new either: her refusal to debate other party leaders during the election campaign was, perhaps, unprecedented in its political cowardice.
In spite of her historically homophobic, racist and misogynistic political opinions, the predicament of Mrs May almost inspires pity in my heart. Her recent press statement with President Macron saw her papers to the swept to the floor by the wind, perhaps an unlucky omen reflecting the precipitous drop in her belligerent tone and attitude towards Europe. She may be evicted from office very shortly, forced by circumstance into the same category of Prime Ministers as the likes of George Canning, who died a few months after assuming office, and Douglas-Home, who became Prime Minister almost accidentally.
If Theresa May is the Hare in this story; a creature assured of her victory but denied it by her own hubris, then Jeremy Corbyn is surely the Tortoise. We needn’t go over how much of a disadvantage Corbyn faced upon his election as Labour leader in 2015- the aggressive smear campaign against him has been raging nonstop for two years running. His approval ratings were the worst in Labour leadership history; he was branded a terrorist sympathiser by the Murdoch owned media, a radical left-winger in spite of his very reasonable, moderate views. When May called the election, it was assumed that Corbyn would lead the Labour party to electoral oblivion. Many anticipated that the election would kill the party as a viable force in politics, that a new party would have to emerge to take on the now dominant Tories. The Telegraph boasted that the British people would deliver ‘a blow’ to the Labour Party, who had strayed dangerously far from the supposed path of neo-liberal free-market consensus (4). An early pollster who predicted a hung parliament was met, quite literally, with ridicule and taunts on the Daily Politics show (5). Even the sympathetic New Statesmen conceded that a Tory landslide seemed ‘likely’ (6).
We were all stunned when the election results came in. Jeremy Corbyn achieved a swing of 9.6%, an achievement that hadn’t been repeated by any political party since 1945. He won 40% of all votes cast- something that hadn’t been achieved by David Cameron or post-1997 Tony Blair. Labour won over half of the marginal target seats where the sitting MP had a majority of under a thousand votes (7).
The potential for Corbyn’s future success is considerable. Clive Lewis and Caroline Lucas have argued that if people have voted truly tactically under the terms of a ‘progressive alliance’, Jeremy Corbyn would have won a hundred seat landslide majority (8). A post-election opinion poll by Survation gave Labour a five point lead over the Conservatives, 45% to 39% (9). There are now 20+ Tory seats where the incumbent won with a majority of under 1,000. It would require a mere 1% swing in the vote for Labour to win enough seats to win a majority. If Corbyn achieved a near 10% swing this year, it seems relatively easy for him to achieve a 1% swing following the inevitable decline in Tory popularity as they sail the Britannic ship through the turbulent and stormy Brexit seas. Nor are potential Labour targets limited to Tory seats. They came extraordinarily close to seizing Glasgow East from the SNP, losing by a few hundred votes. If more resources are diverted in Scotland at the next election, Labour have a good chance of reclaiming their preponderance there.
Former critics like Poly Toynbee, who had hitherto anticipated a Tory ‘tidal wave’ of an election victory under the inadequate Labour party, now hail Corbyn as the breaker of Britain’s chains of austerity (10). Similarly, Labour MPs who once openly discredited their own leader now line up to praise him. Harriet Harman believes that all of his critics would now be willing to serve in his Shadow Cabinet (11). Slowly but surely, the Tortoise is crawling towards the finishing line.
It would take something drastic and House of Cards-esque for the Conservatives to win the next election on this basis. They have been in power for seven years- historically, this is where the opposition party takes over the reins of government. The Queen’s speech delivered on Wednesday was extraordinary in its hollowness and lack of content. Will Theresa May pull off a Kevin Spacey and win the next election? Or will she be forced to resign before then, and allow a less toxic colleague to lead the party? If we continue with the comparisons to Innocent III, Theresa May’s successor must surely be a new Honorius III, who launched the unsuccessful Fifth Crusade and lost the Holy Land for good. Regardless of who leads the Tories into the next election, the centre of political gravity is as lost to the Conservative party now as Jerusalem was to the Papacy of the 12th century.