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What Theresa May said to make me glare like this

That look from Alastair Campbell on Peston, ITV - Credit: Archant

Seeing through the parallel universe of slogans, soundbites and slavish supporters

It was, said one of Robert Peston’s team, ‘the closest she will get to a TV debate, having you there glowering at her’.

The ‘she’ in question was Theresa May, and as Peston interviewed her, I was sitting in what they insist on calling ‘croissant corner’ – very metropolitan elite – with David Cameron’s former policy advisor Camilla Cavendish. I wasn’t actually glowering for most of the time, but as the Prime Minister finished, the camera cut to me and caught me unknowingly in particularly glowerful mode.

Most of the time, I was concentrating fiercely to see whether she would move beyond the slogans and soundbites we had already heard many times earlier on the Beeb, despite Andrew Marr pleading with her to avoid them, before she sped across town. Playing word bingo with May is all a bit dull. She gets them out there in the first couple of answers, and then repeats them ad nauseam.

Of the many ‘worst moments so far’ of this election campaign, close to the top was the tweet saying that ‘strong and stable leadership’ goes really well to the tune of ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful.’ I have had a bad case or earworm ever since.

‘God, she is a message machine,’ I whispered to Cavendish as May reminded us once more that this election was about ‘strong and stable leadership’, to get ‘strong and stable government’ which would ‘strengthen my hand in the negotiations with the EU,’ so she can get ‘the best possible deal for Britain’. Camilla sensed an admiration in my observation, and a comparison with Tony Blair, but neither were there.

It is true that TB, elected 20 years ago this week – a new dawn, was it not? – was always a good communicator, could stick to a message and make sure his point was heard amid the noise. But if he were to roll out ‘New Labour New Britain … tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime … many not the few …’ whatever the slogan or soundbite du jour, if the Peston/Marr du jour came back with ‘but what does that mean?’, there was always policy and substance to back it up.

We have had a referendum campaign, close to a year with May as PM, a few weeks of intense campaigning since she called her ‘crush the sabs, exploit Labour’s weakness, give me a blank cheque’ election, and still we are no nearer knowing what kind of deal she will get, or see as acceptable, for Britain. And neither the Opposition nor the media are doing anything like the job they should be in forcing her to answer the tough questions she currently bats off with her glib one-liners. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was on before her, and the word ‘Brexit’ crossed neither his nor Peston’s lips.

When I kept banging on about Brexit, as I intend to keep doing, Peston chided me we would get ‘bored’ if all we talked about was Brexit. But this is a Brexit election. It is why she called it. If she gets the majority she wants, though she says it is about her v Corbyn now, it will then all be about Brexit and she will have the mandate she needs to ram through the two options left to her – no deal or a bad deal. Because one thing is already clear – David Davis’ claim that we will get a deal with the ‘exact same benefits’ as membership of the single market and the customs union is just one more Brexiteer delusion. It is not going to happen.

Anyone who buys the ‘strong and stable leadership’ line would be very wise to study the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung account of the dinner May and Davis had with senior Commission officials headed by Jean-Claude Juncker. The phrase ‘all over the shop’ seems more apposite. Even accepting that it was briefed by one side, if it is close to half accurate, it shows very clearly that far from having strong and stable leadership, we have incompetence, a lack of grasp of detail, and a zealous belief that things are somehow going to work out fine. It is also evidence of the extent to which the Brextremist Lie Machine papers are setting the agenda for the broadcasters that it barely figured on the radar of either.

As for ‘every vote will strengthen my hand,’ that is this election’s equivalent of the £350m lie on the once visible Boris Johnson’s referendum red bus. As Angela Merkel has made clear, a big election win will give May a platform, but it makes no difference to how she and the UK are seen in these negotiations. When the 27 EU leaders met to agree their strategy, does anyone seriously think they sat around measuring each other’s majorities? If so, how come Merkel, who has never won one, and has always led coalitions, is the most powerful leader? It is because of the country she represents and the skill she has shown in doing so. May is the leader of an exiting country. Fact. The 27 now have their interests, and they do not coincide with ours. A majority of two, or two hundred, it makes no difference at all.

As Merkel said (the final line about ‘illusions’ seemingly added after an incredulous Juncker filled her in on the dinner) ‘Countries with a third country status – and that’s what Great Britain will be – cannot and will not have the same or even more rights as a member of the European Union. All 27 member states and the European institutions agree on this… I have to put this so clearly because I get the impression that some in Great Britain still have illusions about this, and that is a waste of time.’

As I said on Peston, the meeting of the 27 was the moment at which the delusional fantasies of the Brexiteers began to hit the hard reality of dealing with a bloc that is united, clear in its goals, and vastly experienced in the kind of difficult and tortuous negotiations that lie ahead. What is more, the ‘strengthen my hand’ lie, allied to the oafish, nationalist, flag and willy-waving coverage of many of our papers may help May in the election, but is already harming her in the negotiation.

We are living in a world of many parallel universes. In the government, and their slavish media supporters, May is Mother Theresa, Brexit is going like a dream, and the Europeans are all going to bend to our will. Among the public, some buy it, many millions do not, but with the Hard Brexit government, and Labour seemingly wanting to talk about anything but Brexit, they are confused as to how to express themselves in this election.

May had a new line to trot out on Sunday. That this was the most important election of her lifetime. I sensed in that one a fear that apathy was beginning to stalk a land in which polls and media are declaring the result a foregone conclusion. She said it was about preparing Britain for the future. Forgive me, but I thought the future was about young people, most of whom feel their future is being stolen from them by the old.

As for our the economy, how can anyone say with a straight face that pulling ourselves out of the biggest trading bloc in the world is the right way to develop a strong economic future. Anyone, that is, but Liam Fox, who gets a few more air miles for going to the Philippines to pave the way for the great new trade deal we will have with them in LaLaLand Brexit Britain. Last time I looked, we did around half of our trade with the EU … 0.1% with the Philippines.

To the tune of ‘All Things Bright And Beautiful’ …

‘Strong and Stable Leadership,

My soundbite every day.

Heading to Oblivion,

This is the Brexit Way.

With diddy David Davis,

And little Liam Fox,

Chief Liar Boris Johnson,

My Brexiteering cocks.

Strong and stable leadership,

This is my favourite tune,

Heading to Oblivion,

Vote me the 8th of June.’

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