Whether it is the reading of too many political novels, or the watching of too many episodes of ‘Yes. Minister’ or ‘House of Cards’ by too many politicians and commentators, or whether for other reasons, modern British politics has had about it for too long the air of a television production. What matters is image, charisma and the ability to charm the populace; capability, even talent, are secondary. Tony Blair looked and sounded like he was playing the part of Prime Minister in a TV drama, and the same was true of David Cameron; how else to explain the otherwise inexplicable rise of Boris Johnson, a man of no discernible political achievements, but a winning way in front of the cameras? And now, all of a sudden, it begins to fall away.
It ends in a suitably ‘House of Cards’ way, as is only appropriate – the machine swallows its own. Michael Gove, cast for the part of policy-wonk adviser, fancies himself for the big job and knifes Johnson in the front and the back simultaneously (aren’t special effects wonderful); but having done so, finds, as Macbeth did, that no one trusts him. He won’t make the final cut, and his career is over, and what’s worse for him, so is his carefully-cultivated reputation as a good chap; the toxic twins of Brexit have indulged in mutually assured destruction. From the Right wing we get Iain Duncan-Smith in a dress, in the form of Andrea Leadsom, a type familiar to anyone who has ever had anything to do with local Tory associations. Around her gather the hopes of those whose politics begins and ends in Europe; she is a creature of hype, perhaps its last gasp before sense descends and the tawdry meretriciousness of modern politics implodes under the weight of its own inadequacies.
Its nemesis comes in two unlikely forms. On the one hand, Theresa May, a woman so uncharismatic that she would not even be cast in a TV drama about herself. Launching her campaign she did something few politicians have done for a long time – she talked about public service – as befitted a vicar’s daughter. She is not in it for herself – if she were, she wouldn’t have stayed at that graveyard of reputations, the Home Office, for so long; and if she were not a consummate political operator who could do detail, she would not have been able to have survived it so long. This is the woman who had the guts to tell the Tory party that it had become known as the ‘nasty party’; they did not like it, some still don’t, but it took courage, as it did to tell the Police Federation to clean up its act. Of all the contenders for the Premiership (which is what becoming leader of the Tory party in these circumstances will mean), Mrs May is the one Angela Merkel and co. will dislike having to deal with most. There will no histrionics, no playing to the cameras; instead, there will be a mastery of the brief and a negotiating style borrowed from the best poker players.
The other unlikely form is already with us in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn. He is the antithesis of Blair and the media politician too. In his case his inadequacies have been exposed, he has been judged and found wanting, but he won’t go. He knows the party’s new supporters support him. His hard-left advisers tell him he has a democratic mandate, and all his life he has responded to the siren call of the idealistic Left; where it will leave Labour remains to be seen. The rules say it is going nowhere, its new leftist supporter have to show how they can defy the rules; it will be interesting – as long as you are not on the left, in which case it will be agonising.
This is the chance for the Tory party to get the great matricide of 1990 out of its system – the defenestration of Mrs Thatcher has left a long and poisonous legacy. It may be that, as with the blood-letting at the end of Hamlet, the mutually assured destruction of Cameron, Osborne, Johnson and Gove is what it will take to remind our politicians that they serve the public, and that they are not its masters. Mrs May gets that, as, in his own way, does Mr Corbyn. Let the TV dramatists do their thing, and let our politicians get back to the serious business of trying to run the country.