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All politicians are spinning a line – but Theresa May’s is beyond satire

A satirical Margaret Thatcher Spitting Image puppet and Theresa May - Credit: Archant

This is an election like no other. Labour candidates saying there is no way their leader can win; the Tories insisting he can

Spitting Image – where are you when we need you most?

How tragic that the young generation we need to engage in our politics do not, as I discovered in a school last week, even know who or what you were?

There has not been much to cheer from Donald Trump’s election as US President, but at least he has presided over a rebirth of American satire. On the humour front, Brexit Britain seems strangely becalmed by comparison. When I did a talk with Rory Bremner recently, I thought, why is this great political mimic and satirist doing a road show in places like Cheltenham rather than being on the box night after night, as he ought to be in these beyond-parody times?

There would be no shortage of compelling Spitting Image puppets with compellingly lampoonable political positions and personalities. Trump and Putin for starters. Closer to home, Theresa May the Soft Remainer who became a Hard Brexiteer; the Vicar’s daughter who ‘assesses facts and makes informed decisions’, transformed into the promise-breaking control freak with a touch of the Erdogans around the eyes on becoming PM; those bags she carries beneath the eyes likely to grow along with election campaign exhaustion; the slight stoop; the seeming inability to empathise with members of the public; the voice dull but eminently caricaturable. Jeremy Corbyn – the backstory, the beard, the polls, the positions at odds with his own party, old-style politics and sleepy look, the cap, the allotment, the red tie that doesn’t quite get tied straight. And the back up characters have rich potential … imagine Tim Farron in a dog collar, Boris Johnson with a Lie Detector beeping every time he says something that isn’t true, Philip Hammond taking on the zzzz role once performed by John Major, John McDonnell switching from High St bank manager to hard left hatchet man, Nicola Sturgeon, Diane Abbott, Nigel Farage, Paul Nuttall, Len McCluskey… politics may be in a desperate state right now, but for heaven’s sake, surely someone can make a decent show out of this cast of characters?

Based on the campaign so far, there is an emerging comedic strand that could run all the way to June 8. Labour candidates going round saying a Tory win is guaranteed; and Tories, the debate-ducking, people-evading, criticism-hating May included – my oh my did you see her face when Yvette Cooper called her out on various examples of going back of her word? – insisting they are in the fight of their lives.

‘Oh Labour can win this,’ says the Tory candidate.

‘Oh no we can’t,’ says the Labour candidate.

‘Oh yes you can,’ says the Tory.

‘Oh no they can’t,’ says the Lib Dem – ‘but we can.’ Hohoho.

I said last week this was an election like no other I could recall, but this really is a new one on me … Labour candidates saying there is no way their leader can win; the Tories insisting he can.

The reasons on each side are different. For many Labour MPs, they think they can win their seat if they get voters to focus on them as candidates dedicated to their local community, but fear it might slip away if the central question becomes the one the Tories wish to put centre stage – do you want Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister?

So the messaging goes something like this … ‘vote for me to be your MP, and do so in the knowledge that Corbyn is never going to make Number 10 … she’s got the overall majority in the bag, otherwise she wouldn’t have called the election, but don’t give her a massive majority because then she can do what the hell she wants.’

May left herself wide open to that one by the manner in which she called the election, saying that the country was uniting (sic) but Parliament was not (also sic, given it had united far too much for my liking.) As Alan Johnson pointed out this week, when he called into question Labour’s backing of her snap election, the role of Parliament is not to unite behind a Prime Minister.

This is surely especially the case when the unity being asked for is to help her pursue a policy that most MPs and millions of the public do not actually support. Parliament exists not to unite but to provide Government and Opposition and the very fact of this election underlines May’s profound dislike that the latter might actually do its job properly.

But if the public were to get the sense that May, far from being noble and statesmanlike in her motivations, was putting the country through yet more political turmoil purely to crush the Opposition, and pack ‘her’ Commons with dozens of new Hard Brexit Tories so she can get a bad Brexit deal or no Brexit deal through Parliament, they might start to think these Labour candidates have a point. Then all sorts of interesting and unexpected things could happen as people try to work out not who the PM will be – most people do indeed assume she only called it now because she cannot see how she loses – but whether their vote can be used to stop her power getting out of hand.

To prevent that, the Tories have to go around with their own version of the ‘phew, this is a real bumclencher’ strategy, pretending that they think Corbyn is just weeks away from the biggest political shock of our times.

There is another very good reason (from her perspective) that May has to talk up the risk. That is that she needs to shape the mood so that the really heavy negative campaigning against Corbyn can be launched. She won’t do it herself of course. She is far too nice for that (though it is quite revealing that the only mention of her in my diaries from 2003-2005 was when she sought to turn David Miliband’s adoption of a child into a political issue, which was really not pleasant at all.) So nice may be the wrong word. More accurate is that she needs to stay above it, and let others do the dirty work.

And of course with sociopaths like Paul Dacre champing at the bit, and the broader Brextremist Lie Machine of him, Murdoch, Desmond and the Barclays ready to lap up any Corbyn attacks that ‘Sir’ Lynton Crosby’s Tory HQ dirt-diggers wish to put their way, she won’t need overly to soil her hands herself. The papers will do it for her, and the broadcasters will allow it to colour their coverage too.

But if the public start to think this is all part of a soft-Putinisation, Hard Brexit plan just to crush all Opposition, or if they start to think it just looks like the unpleasant bullying of an elderly man that most think has no chance of winning, it might actually work against them.

Dacre et al won’t be able to help themselves. And though she will never bring herself to criticise them, there is a little unease in Mayland that the Mail’s cheerleading seems to have moved from admiration to sycophancy into something closer to fascism. Judges as enemies of the people. That front page picture after she called the election of May looking demonic with the headline ‘Crush the Saboteurs’ – I wonder if he knew he was quoting Lenin?

Satire, as Malcolm Tucker reminds us, has to take a grain of truth – the sweary Number 10 spin doctor trying to keep control of politicians and media alike – and build it into a comic mountain. The more believable the grain, the funnier the mountain is likely to be.

On that basis, the Spitting Image editor would have to decide which of these storylines has the greater comedic value. ‘Don’t worry, Jeremy can’t win’ from the mouths of Labour candidates? Or, from the mouth of the PM herself, ‘oh my God, Corbyn can win this and I won’t have my three figure majority to take through my Brexit Means Batshit strategy after all?’ No contest. Theresa May, puppet show superstar.

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