Here's how the Remain cause has ceased to be the establishment
PUBLISHED: 15:17 25 April 2017 | UPDATED: 15:17 25 April 2017
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When you think about it, Theresa May's decision to call a snap election should come as no surprise.
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We were once on Question Time together. Before the show, she paced the waiting area like many of the politicians do. You have to be careful on QT if you’re an elected official. One slip, and you can make news. You don’t want to make news.
A tallish, lean woman, she wore a pair of her famous kitten heels, a strange affectation because they seemed to indicate a person who wanted to stand out. But not too much. She was in the Shadow Cabinet then, and I’d either heard somewhere or read somewhere that she had leadership ambitions, but the Tory Party was a Boys’ Club.
I guess out of sisterly solidarity, I walked up to her and said: “Good luck with your leadership ambitions.” I’m not sure what had happened earlier in the day to upset her, maybe she was just nervous, but she glowered at me.
“Charmless,” was my husband’s verdict and I guess that just about summed up my impression of the woman I now call “Queen T”.
“I shadowed her for years, I know what makes her tick”, Yvette Cooper once said to me, and as the one–time shadow Home Secretary in Ed Miliband’s shadow government, that made sense.
When someone says something like that about a public figure, you naturally want to know more, but I wasn’t sure that there was a “there” to Theresa May. Not to denigrate her, but what struck me on the QT panel was her punctiliousness, which isn’t actually precision. It’s a form of manners and an exhibition of plain old, cold fear. It’s both fun and alarming watching politicians like May do “ordinary people”, and she did her best.
She answered everything with great authority. She did her job without verve, without spontaneity, which made me wonder to myself how she thought politics was for her, except as a kind of calling. A thing you do to help people, to show them The Way.
It was May who sent out, as Home Secretary, what was called the “racist van”. It was an invitation to immigrants to kindly leave this island, go somewhere else. Anywhere. It was cold-hearted. It frightened people. And it said something about her: that maybe she divided people up, had a “them” and an “us”.
George Osborne was said to have been summarily dismissed by her after she was made leader of the party. To her, he had “over-promised” and “under-delivered”. Anyway that was the rumour. To send to the backbenches a guy who had wielded as much power as Osborne had takes a particular kind of ruthlessness. A glee in seeing an enemy not just defeated, but wiped out. “Never bring a knife to a gunfight” they say back in my hometown of Chicago, and May never does.
In PMQs she once delivered such a blood-curdling laugh, complete with head thrown back when Jeremy Corbyn demanded an answer from her, that it launched a thousand memes.
I believe it when it was reported that she had come to her decision to call a snap general election while on a walk with her husband, and that she had kept her Cabinet in the dark until she told them shortly before she told the world.
There might have been a danger that she would be deterred; maybe stopped. Because, while it’s fairly certain that the Tories will form the next government, she may not get the resounding mandate she wants. Because this most careful of politicians may have made a mistake.
The mistake was in saying aloud the election’s subtext. What it really is.
For example, Donald Trump and the Republican Party never openly stated what his campaign was. It was the harnessing of a backlash. It was rounding up and pinning down eight years of sheer rage.
Instead, the campaign was called: “Make America Great Again”. That did three things: the word “make” created and empowered a base dedicated to Trump and Trump alone. It is an active word and pays homage to what working-class people do: work. The “America” word evoked The Dream, that continuous loop playing in the mind of everyone in The Land Of The Free And The Home Of the Brave. And “again” means that the greatness once happened and can happen again.
So the Republicans gave him their party and the rest is history. If Trump had said “backlash”, either literally or in deed, he could have made his followers feel disempowered. Instead he has done the opposite.
The European Union employs a cadre of professional, multilingual, three-dimensional chess-playing diplomats. These are the kind of people that the rest of the world equates with the British diplomatic corps. Except that they aren’t British. They’re the other side, the EU27.
The UK has been shut out of routine EU trade talks for fear May and her Team might use the information to the UK’s advantage. It is almost meant to humiliate and denigrate, and the message has hit home. The PM wants to sit down at the table with a large mandate, her own mandate won through her own manifesto.
She must figure that Cameron has detoxified the Tories enough; made them look inevitable enough that she can finish the job and seal the deal. And maybe she could have done: if she hadn’t used the “B” word: Brexit, in her announcement. She’s lit a fuse.
Brexit zealots, so caught up in the cauldron of their zealotry, believe Remain to be a kind of petulance; a “bad loser” kind of thing; a nuisance; a menace; war.
For many this rejection of the EU has been a life-long project; the crusade of their existence. “My people will crawl over broken glass to vote!” Nigel Farage trumpeted, and they did. But Joyce – the star of viral video of a woman screaming: “Not again!” when told about the General Election – may be a sign that Farage Folks may not turn out in their droves for this one.
But Remain will. We will because May has said that this is a mandate on Brexit. In effect, this is EU Referendum 2. This is the chance for those who didn’t vote/couldn’t vote, to come out. It’s a chance for Remainers to convert more people, help their friends to see the catastrophe that Brexit is.
Remain has ceased to be The Establishment and is more Those Who Won’t Be Silenced. Those who don’t want to be on the same side as Trump; Marine Le Pen; Erdogan; Putin and Tim Wetherspoon. The pull-up-the drawbridge, small world of Little Britain is not the UK that young people identify as the place they want to live.
“My own constituency voted Remain,” Theresa May announced in the Commons as an example of her adhering to the “will of the people”. But if everyone in Maidenhead who voted Remain backed the Lib Dems in June, the PM could lose her seat.
This is the level of the gamble she’s taking; the campaign that she could be giving voice to; the reason why this may not be the slam-dunk the Tory press want us to believe.
Everyone knows why David Cameron put in the Conservative manifesto the promise of an “In/Out” simple majority vote on whether the UK stays in the EU. He did it largely under pressure from querulous ultras. The other reason was to shut down UKIP and Farage personally. The referendum was a Tory proxy war. This snap election is one, too.
If May wins big, she will reduce the leverage of these same “ultras” who will not rest until the UK has severed every tie with Europe. And she’ll act big when she sits down in Brussels.
John Curtice, a leading psephologist (a scientist who studies polls), and the man who got the Brexit vote and GE 2015 right, points out that there are more safe seats now than there ever were. He sees the UK becoming more like the US, with fewer swing seats. In other words, Labour might surprise everyone and the Tories return with a another small majority. Just like before.
With Scotland effectively out of the picture and Northern Ireland, too, this could be the battle for the Labour heartlands. If turnout falls below expectations, then it will be a matter of how many young people come to the polling booths; how many urban dwellers. They can stop the triumph of May.
It would be foolish for anyone to predict the outcome of this. We’re in an age of uncertainty, when polls that look certain are discovered, after an election, to have “herded”; that phenomenon where a pollster gives a result because it doesn’t want to look out of step. There are fears that this might be happening in France now. It happened in the US and it happened during the EU referendum.
And this is the risk and possible humiliation of a person who keeps her cards close to her chest. Her internal critics have got to her but, in public, May has said that it is we Remainers who are to blame for her inability to forge the deal she wants.
This snap general election is meant to shut us up and show the world.
And it won’t.
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