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09th Jun 2017

How Theresa May went full George Costanza in her cynical quest for power

Theresa May has found out that the old games are over for good

Dion Fanning

So Theresa May emerges as a one-woman coalition of chaos. On Friday, she announced she will form a government with the probable support of the DUP, but this minority administration is even smaller than she thinks.

May is on her own. Her calamitous campaign has taken care of that. She will be ruthlessly dispatched within her own party as soon as possible. She became Tory leader due to the feud between Michael Gove and Boris Johnson and didn’t even have to beat Andrea Leadsom who withdrew before the vote. May has now failed to defeat Jeremy Corbyn, the man whose presence as Labour leader was the reason she called a snap election.

No matter how much she talked about certainty outside Downing Street on Friday, the truth is the opposite. May spoke as if the election hadn’t been the political disaster it had been. She went full George Costanza, pretending the election she called hadn’t happened, as she talked about delivering all the things the electorate had decided they didn’t want her to deliver.

It was an extraordinary performance, embracing every aspect of the Costanza playbook, stopping short only of walking from the lectern with the words, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

But she is finished. May is now a case study in misjudgment while the type of campaign she ran, with the support of certain newspapers, may well be finished too.

May was right about one thing – this was the most important election of her lifetime and the British people have decided she wasn’t to be trusted with matters of such importance.

She stopped talking about it being the most important election a while back, when it looked as if people might actually be taking her seriously and were prepared to act accordingly.

It had become clear that something strange was going on, that the old cynical approach which the Conservatives assumed would lead to a landslide was having the opposite effect.

Nobody knows anything, as William Goldman said, and nobody knows anything at all anymore, but we might look back on this election as the moment when people decided they’d had enough of badness taking hold.

Brexit and Donald Trump’s election has shaken people out of their apathy and on Thursday night for a brief improbable time, Corbyn was odds-on to be the next prime minister. While it may seem different now with May retreating back into Downing Street with her minority government, that triumph remains. As the DUP emerge as the power-brokers, a group that make Trump look as sober and restrained as Geoffrey Howe, it seems like the last roll of the dice for the old way of playing.

Of course, plenty of people voted based on fears, real and imagined, but others have been energised and they didn’t see May as she thought they would see her.

Instead it was Jeremy Corbyn – flawed, frustrating, alarming Jeremy Corbyn – who was capturing something of the anger of those who had wised up to the old games and wanted something new.

On Friday morning, Corbyn gave an interview in his home before emerging to the sound of one man chanting ‘Oooh Jer-emy Corb-yn’ to the tune of ‘Seven Nation Army’.

Corbyn was interviewed in front of bookshelves containing books it seemed very likely he might have actually read. In itself, this is a minor point but it contrasted so severely with May who took the electorate for hyper-sensitive fools who might burst into flames if they heard her say anything interesting or contentious. 

This approach was limitless, there was zero tolerance for anything that took them away from the playbook so when May was asked by City AM if she preferred Beaujolais or Chablis, she replied, “It depends what you’re eating”. She couldn’t think of anything more daring than running through a field of wheat when asked what was the naughtiest thing she had done, in case some voter somewhere took issue with a flash of personality.

This cynicism, like so much cynicism, concealed an all-pervasive and overwhelming fear.

By contrast, Corbyn brought hope and humanity. The daring aspect of Labour’s campaign was to decide to abandon the approach of speaking to people on the assumption that they were all idiots.

In fact, the only misstep Corbyn took in the campaign was when he scrambled to find his childcare figures when he was interviewed on Woman’s Hour. It would have been more in keeping with his campaign if he had simply admitted he couldn’t remember, but he was sure somebody somewhere had the figures.

Corbyn’s campaign was bold and defiant, even in those areas where you didn’t agree with him. He decided to speak abut UK foreign policy in the wake of the Manchester attack, a decision which seemed to defy all conventional political thinking.

Perhaps it damaged him and Labour. People will wonder what would have happened if a more moderate leader had taken on May. But a moderate leader would not have tapped into the sense of frustration that remains across the country.

We are still living with the consequences of 2008 and there are still people who haven’t absorbed the consequences. The reaction to Corbyn’s manifesto revealed that as the papers screamed that he was taking the country back to the 1970s.

Socialism had been tried and failed, they said. Some might have quoted Margaret Thatcher and said the problem with socialism is that you always run out of other people’s money.

This is indeed a problem, as we learned in 2008 when the banks ran out of other people’s money and were bailed out with the people’s. Back then, we learned something about the free market: it was a free market as long as there were good times, but rigged when there were not. It was, in the old phrase, socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.

In that altered landscape, people had had enough of the old playbook. When the Conservatives talked about the magic money tree, people saw a party that had cultivated a walled forest of money for a certain class.

Out of this, Corbyn emerged as a real personality, even if he may not have done so well without the weaknesses of his opponent. The Conservatives can highlight an increased vote share, but having set out to crush the opposition, this is very much from the “you should see the other guy” school of defending a beating.

It was May who gambled. It was May who thought she could run a campaign based on fear, a campaign that, when terror struck, doubled down on that fear. And it was May who has lost.

She is a diminished figure, but still an important one. May is the symbol for all that is cynical and manipulative in politics, an approach which anticipated crushing Corbyn using all the old methods.

They have cobbled together a government of the weak and bewildered. They have hunkered down in Downing Street, but reality is closing in. Things changed on Thursday night and, despite this desperate move, people won’t fall for the old tricks anymore.