Queen Theresa's bid for throne ends in ignominy

Fintan O’Toole: In all of this panic there has been a deep undermining of the idea of political authority

British Prime Minister Theresa May calls for a 'period of stability' in the wake of the UK general election results. Video: Reuters

 

So there’s only one queen in England after all.

The coronation of Queen Theresa is much more likely to be a decapitation. And the remarkable result of the election she called in the expectation of a triumphal procession raises the most fundamental question that can be asked in any state: who’s in charge here?

It’s not Theresa May, and it’s not anybody else either.

To understand what has happened you have to put together the slogans of the Sex Pistols and the royal family. The Pistols gave us anarchy in the UK.

The royals’ motto is Nemo me impune lacessit, which roughly translates as “Don’t mess about or there will be consequences.”

The British political class messed about with the Brexit referendum, and the consequence is, if not quite anarchy in the UK, a crisis of authority that has profound implications for Brexit itself.

The prime minister’s robotically repeated promise of “strong and stable” leadership raised two obvious questions: can you have strong and stable leadership in a country that has just thrown its entire institutional framework into disarray?

The Tories have been as strong and stable as a kid trying to ride a bike for the first time

And, in particular, can a Conservative Party that has shown itself to be flakier than a snowstorm and more panicky than an enervated chicken credibly present itself as firm and steady? On both counts the clear answer from voters is no.

Trashed

May was attempting to trade on the tried-and-trusted Tory brand of good government and pragmatic economics. But it’s a brand that has been trashed three times in two years by the Tories themselves.

David Cameron took a hammer to it when he called the Brexit referendum in the first place. May gave it another kick when she decided, entirely spuriously, that the vote in that referendum was a mandate for an extreme form of Brexit. Then she finished it off by calling an unnecessary general election. The Tories have been as stable as a kid trying to ride a bike for the first time.

And in all of this panic there has been a deep undermining of the idea of political authority.

Modern British history is all about the establishment of a bedrock political principle: authority comes from parliament. In its long nervous breakdown the Conservative Party has cut itself adrift from this principle.

In the Brexit debacle authority has come from two sources: “the people” imagined as the all-sovereign 52 per cent who voted to leave the EU, and the Daily Mail, whose far-right rantings have been May’s gospel. A constitution based on crude majoritarianism and fascistic denunciations of “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people” is not a recipe for stability.

‘Unelectable’

Both of these impulses have been firmly rejected. The British looked at the prospect of a virtual Tory one-party state and recoiled from it. And the hysterical smearing of Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour allies by the Mail and the rest of the Tory press failed.

Corbyn, the “unelectable”, terrorist-loving loony, garnered more votes for Labour than Tony Blair did in two of his three election victories. The idea that Labour can be a force only if it abandons its social-democratic roots has been overturned. A radical social-democratic manifesto transformed the election and gave the young and the marginalised a reason to vote.

But if it’s not “the people” conceived as a populist mass, and it’s not the propagandist press, who is in charge? More immediately, who has the authority to negotiate Brexit? In effect, no one at all.

May is a beaten docket: she asked for a mandate to be a “bloody difficult” champion for a Britain going into battle with Europe. She emerged instead as a pitiful figure: weak and wobbly, cowardly and indecisive. But even when the Tories replace her, her successor will have no electoral mandate at all.

And this means that there is emphatically no mandate for a hard Brexit. A very close referendum result, won by the Brexiteers with flagrant lies and promises that the UK would stay in the single market, was hijacked to claim total democratic authority for an extremist coup. That operation has failed: the claim that “the people” are unified behind an absolutist Brexit cannot be sustained even by the most shameless of its propagandists.

Invigorated parliament

What Britain will have is a renewed and invigorated parliament with a Labour Party that does have a mandate from its voters for a radically different vision of Britain. Labour has found its voice on social justice, public services and fair taxation. It needs to find its voice on Europe, to say clearly that a hard Brexit will be a disaster for workers, for the poor and for the young people who flocked to its banner.

If it does so it can also begin to return authority to the parliament that has just been elected. That authority must extend to the Brexit negotiations themselves. Parliament must take back control.

Brexit itself is thus not a fait accompli. It has been entirely based on a single strategy: grab an ambiguous referendum and transform it into an unambiguous authority for fanaticism.

Plan A has decisively failed. To win an election you have to have a convincing narrative. May’s story had a huge Brexit-shaped hole. She lost because she lost the plot.

But who can invent a new one?

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