Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative Party conference was billed as the last chance to turn her fortunes around. Instead, it descended into a high farce that has killed off whatever remote chance May had of saving her prime ministership.
The first sign of trouble was when prankster Simon Brodkin approached the podium to hand May a termination slip – a P45 form. “Boris asked me to give this to you”, he said. Hilariously, May accepted it.
Things went downhill from there. As she began to talk about what she called “the British dream”, May was overtaken by a coughing fit and lost her voice. Eventually Phillip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer, handed her a lozenge. The assembled Tory establishment, already traumatised by the slow motion car crash unfolding, was then treated to the grim lesson that you can’t give a speech while sucking on a cough drop.
By this stage, Twitter was in meltdown. One detail in particular caught the attention of many. “Can I just point out that Theresa May is wearing a bracelet of Frida Kahlo, a member of the Communist party who LITERALLY DATED TROTSKY”, tweeted Hannah Parkinson.
While Kahlo’s ghost continued to strangle May from beyond the grave, the gods responsible for meting out poetic justice added a final touch. As her speech gasped with excruciating slowness towards its conclusion, the set began to fall apart – literally. By that stage, the letters of the Tory slogan falling off the wall behind her was the only thing that could have added to the debacle, and so they duly fell.
You can’t always stop pranksters, you can’t help having a cough, and sometimes the stuff your aides stick the letters to the wall with just isn’t sticky enough. But what made this fiasco so disastrous for May – and such a brilliant political spectacle – is that it so perfectly embodied her political situation.
May, and the Tory Party, are reeling from one disaster to another. The only thing stopping them from descending into full scale civil war is utter terror at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn sweeping to office and establishing what they call a “Marxist government”.
But if it is Corbyn holding them together, he is also the one tearing them apart. By doing what virtually no other social democratic party has done – providing a coherent, fighting opposition to neoliberalism – Corbyn’s Labour has exposed the huge weakness at the heart of contemporary centre right politics, a weakness that exists not just in the UK but across the world.
Here, neoliberal economics took a hammer blow when the 2014 Abbott-Hockey austerity budget went down in flames. The Liberal government has been wracked by conflict and policy paralysis ever since. But the scale of the crisis is substantially less for one reason – the Labor Party offers no substantial opposition to the economic doctrines that have been the bipartisan consensus since the 1980s.
The crisis in the Liberal Party is played out on the mundane terrain of the clash of personalities between Abbott and Turnbull. In Britain, by contrast, the Tory crisis has become a crisis of British capitalism. The ideological framework that underpinned Tory rule has collapsed – with the Grenfell Tower fire being but the starkest illustration of the failure of austerity, cutbacks and deregulation.
No section of British capital has come up with any alternative, any new economic doctrine that can both reboot the economy and generate a new consensus on how it should work.
Of course, in a sense, this has been true since the onset of the global financial crisis. What is different now is that the Labour Party under Corbyn does have an alternative – renationalisation, proper funding of social services, wage rises and increased taxes on corporations and the rich – that is not just accepted but enthusiastically supported by masses of people.
Without that alternative, status quo politics could muddle on interminably. That’s what is happening here in Australia. The government has no real political direction. But without a real fighting alternative, it lives on, endlessly avoiding facing the fact that the neoliberal emperor no longer has any clothes.