"I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream—past the wit of man to say what dream it was." -- A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Her party reviles her, and lards her with pity -- which is just the ambassador of contempt. Her backbenchers are publicly polite, but the Tory Whatsapp group pours bile on her. She staggers on, duty-bound to see out the job, and sort out a thankless party. They continue with their perfidy, she persists doggedly. Someone hands her a P45, she smiles and continues. They patronise her with over-long applause, as she struggles with a cough. Boris knifes her from every direction, she refuses to fire him. He gets to work on her neck, and she continues with her throat half-cut.
Everything conspires against her. The set falls apart, almost as if it was designed to make a mockery of whoever was speaking. The speech falls apart, almost as if it was written to implode upon reading. The delegates look, somehow, both bored and horrified, almost as if they're numbed beyond belief and just waiting for the nightmare to end. May struggles on.
Such is May's dream, and like all dreams it contains a degree of wish-fulfilment. Let us ask the obvious question. Why does May not quit? Why did she not quit as soon as she lost her Commons majority? And why, if she won't do that, does she not start ruthlessly knifing disloyal colleagues, beginning with Boris Johnson? The man is running an explicit leadership campaign in the national press; anyone who was really leading the Conservative Party, let alone the country, would have had him chopped up and fed to starved pigs by now.
Why persist with this obviously dysfunctional relationship? Why go into conference as a despised leader simmering with rage and resentment at her colleagues -- the joking reference to Osborne's astonishing cannibalism fantasy being but one manifestation of this? Why turn up in front of a party yearning for hardcore nationalist exhortation with a Labour lite speech, and a bracelet featuring icons of Frida Kahlo, socialist revolutionary and Trotsky's lover?
Granted that May will have been told by senior colleagues: you're not going anywhere until you've seen us through this rough patch, taken all the flack and caught as much of the airborne ordure as possible. Granted that, consciously, there is an element of stoical duty in all of this.
Yet it must have become patently obvious already that this isn't working. That they are staying together only to tear further chunks out of one another. That hanging around and doing such a tragically terrible job is a kind of 'fuck you', a covert protest. May said in her speech that she doesn't wear her heart on her sleeve but, with the Kahlo bracelet, she may well have been wearing her spleen. In psychoanalytic terms, this is aggressivity, a mutually love-hate, sado-masochistic, self-destructive kind of behaviour.
I am tempted to say that it is the group psychology of trauma. This sort of trauma happens when an event crashes through one's defenses so suddenly that no effective response can be mustered, leaving a mark that cannot be articulated. The sociologist Kai Erikson notes that trauma often pulls people together, even while ripping them to pieces. They gravitate to one another, but what draws them together is not agreement, but an unspeakable kernel of trauma that they share.
Sometimes disaster does produce a brief wave of euphoric fellow-feeling, once people realise they have survived. Often, however, it just forces open existing faultlines and creates new ones -- for example, between those most affected and those most insulated from the impact. It leads to blame and blood-letting, numbness, withdrawal, hatred of the outside world. Perhaps this is the Conservative Party in 2017.
Trauma must be part of the picture. This has been a peculiarly distressed, disordered Tory conference. The party, or those strikingly few of its number who could bring themselves to attend conference this year seem to be dazed, broken, in disarray, lashing out at outsiders (the hostility to certain journalists has been pungent) or at their own side. The main speeches, though occasionally letting interesting thoughts slip out of the bag, have been lacklustre and almost exasperated.
The real energy has been in the fringe meetings where, for example, traumatised delegates gathered to discuss : the answer, from almost every speaker, was yes. Sympathetic pundits . One speaker, while blaming the rise of the Left on too much education, claimed that Corbynism is a one-off fluke, a flash-in-the-pan, the 2017 result never to be repeated. After this conference, that looks even more like wishful thinking than before.
Let's go back one stage, however, because this didn't really begin with the aftermath of the election. Recall that May called the election, initially, in part to save herself from being at the mercy of her backbenchers. A bigger majority would give her a stronger hand to negotiate Brexit as she saw fit. There are, one hears, other reasons why May might have called the election when she did (you'll have to read the new edition of Corbyn to find out). But whatever the rationale, what did she do? She called the election and then disappeared. She went on holiday. She didn't tell her MPs, and it seems she didn't even brief her cabinet. They came out, blinking into the sunlight faced with an election they had been told wasn't coming. Then, when she returned, she blundered in every possible way.
May can't be fully blamed for not seeing how badly things would go. For example, the manifesto which everyone now agrees was horrible, was sang to the heavens by all the editors of Britain's newspapers when it was released. The Guardian, the Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun, they all thought it was a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Until it wasn't.
Nonetheless, surely May and her advisors are experienced enough to know that you can't fight an election with a bunch of robotic slogans and policies (social care) micturating on your core support, and other policies (legalised hunting) pissing everyone off but the core support. And even as the campaign went on, and everyone could see it was going badly, they had nothing else up their sleeves.
May marched the Tories into a campaign they were singularly unprepared for, and that's why they hate her. They have every right to, of course. But, by the same token, she hates them, and perhaps has for a long time. Never entirely one of the modernisers, she was also not the Brexiteer she claimed to be: she had to hide her politics to get the job. Having scolded the Tories for their image as "the nasty party," she was a ruthless champion of Home Office authoritarians, embarrassing Cameron with her racist vans. She cordially despised the Osborne wing of the party, but doesn't seem to have liked anyone else.
Once in the leadership, her contempt for her cabinet colleagues became legendary. Her refusal to listen to anyone, take advice from anyone outside her small group of advisors (probably a hangover from Home Office factionalising) earned the enmity of both front- and backbenchers. After the election, one Tory MP admitted that they actually preferred the result to the 100-strong majority May was seeking, as she would then have been 'unstoppable'.
In other words, yes this is trauma, but it is a trauma that has impacted upon pre-existing faultlines. What are these faultlines? The problem can be put like this. The Tories have historically been a capitalist party with a middle class activist base, and an electoral coalition forged between the traditional middle class and skilled workers. The dominant institutions have been run by businessmen and aristocrats, while local branches teemed with shopkeepers, retired dentists, managers and so on. And for a long time, the Conservatives had the biggest membership base of any party, being rooted in traditionally well-organised affluent communities, as well as the unconditional support and financing of the capitalist class.
However, that organisation has fallen apart in recent decades. The membership has plummeted, especially since 1992, as has the vote share. Traditional working class Toryism has been in decline and fragmenting. Professionals have been moving to the left. Even business became a little more politically 'secular'. Much of the base seceded to hard-right alternatives while the Tory establishment tried desperately to steer toward the centre. There was a political split between business conservatism, and middle class reaction. Brexit offered a way to seemingly reverse this by resolving these differences to the advantage of the reactionaries, but it was .
Problem number one for the Conservatives is that they no longer have any idea how to administer capitalism. No viable long-term growth strategy avails. They can't address the financial sector without hurting their allies in the City. They can't address the crisis of productivity and investment without more state intervention than they're willing to accept. They can't address the housing crisis or the precarious debt-driven economy without harming the interests of home owners. They can't build new support in the rustbelts on an anti-immigrant basis, without sacrificing affluent swing voters and particularly ethnic minority voters in big cities and marginals.
All the options for confronting this are bad, and set them apart, and against one another. The only thing that was saving the Tories from falling on one another with all the immense savagery of their nature was the fact that the opposition was either hopeless or tearing itself apart. That has changed.
In May's very British dream, she is a paragon of dutiful self-sacrifice, stoical, matronly, selflessly martyring herself for a party of mewling brats that knows not what it does. They don't even know what's good for them, she reasons, so she must soldier on. But that's the dreamwork. The reality is that May has shown her party matchless antipathy, tormenting and humiliating it more, the more it reviles her. It is not that she won't fire Boris; it is that she knows they, having crowned her without a contest and desperate to avoid one, won't fire her. So, from Grenfell to conference, she flaunts her incoherence, her incompetence, her remoteness, her disdain, doing everything but that which could begin to mitigate the crisis.
And this dance of death will continue, one suspects, until someone ambitious and self-loathing enough orchestrates her grisly downfall.