The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, just passed. Not literally. Metaphorically, I mean.
I should clarify: the physical person of Theresa May continues to live. Her eyes contain, and reflect, light; her heart pumps blood. Theresa Mary May, from Eastbourne, married to Philip May, is registered as functioning and breathing by all important authorities. If a doctor scrutinized her, he would report that the PM had every sign of life: pulse, speech, muscle response, eating, coughing—the works.
But her career has vanished, gone completely.
Her authority and majority were taken by the last election.
Her political moment in Manchester was snatched away by her rival (and current Foreign Secretary) Boris Johnson—a shaggy pool of Eton clichés given life.
And what little remained of her power was buried yesterday, thanks to her keynote at the British Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. The speech was legitimately terrible.
It was possibly the worst address by a public figure since Thomas Edison granted the power of speech to humans in 1920. Yes, I’m making this claim in a world that contains Donald Trump. She coughed, she fell silent, she stole planks from Labour, she got trolled by a prankster. In the last two years, there have been two major mistakes in British political life: Brexit, and this speech.
You can watch the highlights here, but please be aware that even this doesn’t do justice to the sheer awkwardness and incompetence on display—keep in mind that the Tories planned everything, and that May was on home turf in front of the friendliest possible crowd:
After May’s oration, what was left of the PM fell down the well, Hoffa-style. A dreadful, inexplicable silence swallowed May, a quiet you could feel from across the ocean. It was perceivable, physical, tangible absence of meaning—like peeking at a broken church bell that’s got the clanger missing.
I watched May’s whole speech. May is the inheritor of David Cameron’s poor choices. Cameron, the former Tory Prime Minister, unwittingly drove his country to Brexit in June 2016. Down he went, and May took his place as Conservative leader and PM. To secure her majority Post-Brexit, May called for a snap election, back in April. All the talking heads in Europe and America said Corbyn’s Labour was unelectable.
Elite wisdom was as reliable as ever: in June, Jezza Corbyn gained thirty seats. The UK General Election was the mammothest Labour Party swing since 1945, a ten-percent growth, larger than huckstering Tony Blair in 1997, almost as huge as Clem Attlee’s gain after World War II. A socialist nearly unseated Theresa May and her Round Table of corporate squires.
The Manchester speech was supposed to be May’s response to Corbyn. There were hints it would be dreadful. The Telegraph reported the tone was going to be stupendously out-of-touch:
The Prime Minister admitted to Andrew Marr that [the election losses] came about because she failed to make the case to voters as to why they should choose Conservative principles such as sound money over Corbynism: “We thought there was a general consensus on [the importance of free market economies] and we now see that there wasn’t and we now need to make those arguments again.”
When May rose to deliver her defense of Conservatism, the hall was chock-a-bloc full of the clotted cream of the Tory party. It all went so well until she opened her mouth. “Excruciating” was the word I kept seeing. CNN had the dry details, but they really didn’t do the event justice:
May, who lost her overall governing majority in the last election, had hoped to relaunch her premiership with her keynote speech. But soon after beginning her address, she was accosted by comedian Lee Nelson, real name Simon Brodkin, who strolled up to the stage and handed her a P45 — a form that UK employees are given when they leave a company, similar to a “pink slip” in the US. Brodkin, who has performed similar stunts in the past, including throwing money over former FIFA President Sepp Blatter at a press conference in 2015, told reporters that he was put up to it by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a former rival to May in her leadership bid. “Boris told me to do it,” he was heard as saying — presumably in jest.
called it “The stuff of unimaginable nightmares.” Another writer in the same paper argued that “It is likely to go down as one of the most painfully agonising political speeches to watch in recent history.”
In the audience, the gathered Tories wore restrained, polite faces, all the better to mask their internal screaming. Row after row of unsmiling bank clerks, hedge fund managers, and small-caliber realtors. They had all the solemnity of a troupe of sea-lions waiting for public execution. The Ancient Egyptians believed the soul had five sections: the Ren, the Ba, the Ka, the Sheut, and the Jb. You could see all five parts leave every member of the audience during the Prime Minister’s speech. It reminded me of the scene in Clockwork Orange where Alex is forced to watch ultraviolent scenes as Beethoven jams in the background.
May’s text sometimes read like a telegram from the Democratic Party of 2015:
Britain leading the world in tackling climate change, eradicating global poverty, and countering terrorism wherever it rears its head. Same sex marriage on the statute book, so that two people who love each other can get married, no matter what their gender … And a National Living Wage – giving a pay rise to the lowest earners – introduced not by the Labour Party, but by us, the Conservative Party. So let us never allow the Left to pretend they have a monopoly on compassion.
You could almost forget her government had tried to create a dementia tax, where homeowners would pay huge sums for long-term medical care. Given the Conservatives’ history, it’s hard to read May’s words and not understand it as the Tories desperately chasing after Jezza’s vote share. “Y’all got any more of that millennial justice?” The general election had been ample vengeance for years of austerity, and May didn’t grasp it.
Sure, May preached about free schools and praised the National Health Service … but then she returned to conservatism’s chief role: praising rapacious capitalism. “That idea of free and open markets, operating under the right rules and regulations, is precious to us. ... So don’t try and tell me that free markets are no longer fit for purpose. That somehow they’re holding people back.”
“Precious.” What a porcupine quill lobbed through the heart! Theresa, the “free” market is absolute garbage. It was never fit for purpose. And how awkward for you, that you would use the “somehow they’re holding people back” line. Especially when the British people have a literal, recent example of physically being held by market-created force: the flaming Grenfell Tower in the center of London. The free market is a trash scow filled with the bodies of the poor.
With a bracelet displaying famous Communist Frida Kahlo on her left wrist, May praised the one percent: “So while we will never hesitate to act where businesses aren’t operating as they should, let this party celebrate the wealth creators, the risk takers, the innovators and entrepreneurs.”
During the speech, she began to lose her voice. I forget if that happened before or after she slandered Labour as anti-Semitic. At the moment she began to cough, the faces of the Tory Cabinet ministers were studies in restrained, contained despair: quiet desperation is the English way. But their eyes—their eyes told a different story. The Cabinet’s pupils shimmered in silent, wolfish anticipation. All of them had battled for power after Cameron. Was this May’s last stand? Could they be next in line for the Tory throne?
In a downward spiral of public terror, May kept joking about her coughs until it became obvious to the rally the PM was on the verge of death. She summoned many leathery rasps, but her voice kept giving out. At times, she was rendered to gasps only birds and saints could understand. By the time it ended, everyone watching, including me, was filled with Titanic -style pity. How could anyone have thought this icy voyage was a good idea?
Shane Ryan suggested the May fiasco was straight from Armando Iannucci’s amazing political satire The Thick Of It. I was reminded of another British comedy, Look Around You. Either way, the unreality came thick as tornado winds. The honest question is, why is life so intent on mimicking art? Why does the world insist on outdoing our satire? Is the universe, in some sense, aware of our activities, and always one step ahead of us, ready to mock us?
Twitter was an encyclopedia of shade:
May, or someone on her staff, managed to jest in the face of oncoming political oblivion:
After the tragedy of Theresa May, I expect the Tories will finally appoint their Waterloo, Boris Johnson, as the next leader. The fiasco in Manchester is instructive. When closely-choreographed events go awry, it’s typically the press who carp. Trump showed us that our mass scolding is less potent than we imagined. But my God, there are metaphors and then there are metaphors. “The British Dream” was the title of May’s speech, and how appropriate: even in fantasy, Britain is falling apart. Behind May’s platform was the slogan “A COUNTRY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE.” As she talked, the letters of the motto fell off, one by one. When it comes to dreams, sometimes there are no words—even in England.