Who put my man i’ the stocks?
LEAR: Who stock’d my servant? …
O sides, you are too tough;
Will you yet hold? How came my man i’ the stocks?
CORNWALL: I set him there, sir: but his own disorders
Deserved much less advancement.
KING LEAR You! did you?
REGAN I pray you, father, being weak, seem so.
If, till the expiration of your month,
You will return and sojourn with my sister,
Dismissing half your train, come then to me:
I am now from home, and out of that provision
Which shall be needful for your entertainment.
There was me thinking the UK or rather England was about to elect its first robot for Prime Minister. Theresa May’s bizarre performances during the election seemed a distillation par excellence of the politician’s art of honesty-avoidance. I had all the same begun to worry for her mental state. On the few occasions she deigned to take a question in public, she would look at her inquisitor still and expressionless, apart from the odd involuntary shake of the head, perhaps signally scepticism, perhaps involuntary. At the end of the question, there was always a small pause, a jerk into response mode, like a crude voice-activated device, and she would launch into a non-answer of clichés and slogans which by the end of the campaign even her cheerleaders had grown weary of. Then there was her awkward leaning forward gait, those sharp uncomfortable limbs, and a face looking constantly on the verge of vomiting. She seemed a person increasingly ill-at-ease in her own body.
People were anticipating her eventual comeuppance, though few expected it was imminent. I foresaw a big Tory victory followed by years of attritional conflict with a growing body of the disaffected. The population would start to despise this government like they grew to despise the long Thatcher-Major regime. Instead the cards are being reshuffled again in this inscrutable, post-financial crisis, Brexit chapter of British democracy.
In the Middle Ages the English had a reputation among the French as a people who killed their kings with unsavoury frequency. Now the full arsenal of the Tory machine, and the plutocrats running its propaganda in the print media, has suddenly stopped insulting Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott and trained its attention on their faltering monarch herself.
Shakespeare’s Lear is in the opening act flattered by his sycophant older daughters until, once he has divested himself of his power, he is by turns emasculated, impoverished, humiliated, imprisoned and ultimately murdered. It begins with the banishing of the entourage, the malevolent advisers who have corrupted the prince’s noble intentions. Prime Minister May had become umbilically dependent on Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, two proper bastards who had enabled their mistress to boss the Home Office for six years. These two were not svelte, cunning Etonians, nor had they proven their calibre by passing through the best universities. (Future political science PhDs might compare them with Piers Gaveston or William Catesby, the reviled confidents of Edward II and Richard III respectively.) Hill and Timothy have now been shoved from the shadows to the public pillory – “i’ the stocks” like the loyal Kent disguised as a peasant who assaulted Goneril’s servant for disrespect for the king. Lacking the appropriate breeding for a Tory courtier they failed to show requisite deference to those who did, and so this weekend has been a bit of a revenge orgy for embittered Conservatives.
Now this shell of a Prime Minister is left mouthing the empty platitudes of power, no longer in a bid to entrench herself, but rather like a hostage forced by her captors to read out a script on camera. She knows, everyone knows, that she will be put out of her misery at some point soon.
I struggle to muster much sympathy for May. Her entire life has been openly directed towards attaining the highest political office, a bit like Gordon Brown, though unlike Brown she had to contend stoically for decades as a woman against the patronising party establishment of the chaps. Also, unlike Brown, she doesn’t appear to possess much moral fibre, given her craven obeisance before the barely inaugurated President Trump and her preparedness to sacrifice human rights in order to appear tough on terrorism and to divert attention from her downgrading of the police.
This ritual un-kinging of May is an exquisite form of political torture of which only the Conservatives, in their unbridled urge to run the UK at all costs, are capable of inflicting on their own. They will morph now back again into a more apparently emollient, pragmatic party that tries harder to avoid offending foreigners and gays and to resist letting its instinctive xenophobia interfere with the imperative of GDP growth. But their core brutality will be undiminished, as we shall shortly see once Boris Johnson and all the other scoundrels start to devour each other in a bid to succeeed their zombie of a leader.
The race to the centre of British politics is back on and, given the self-righteous jubilation of Corbyn and his friends, I can only still see one winner, though I would love to be proven wrong again. The prize is likely a working majority after yet another election in the autumn. Meanwhile the ousted Theresa May and her erstwhile henchmen will have plenty of time to recraft their public personas, and probably, in the cases of Hill and Timothy, return to the arena. It is a preferable denouement to the gory ends which befell their equivalents on the Jacobean stage, I suppose.