On the morning of Monday, 22nd May, it looked as if the wheels had finally started to fall off the Tory electoral charabanc. Theresa May's U-turn on her party's manifesto pledge to make people pay more of the costs of social care--subsequently branded the "Dementia Tax"--had invited scorn and ridicule from all quarters of a mainstream press that had until then given the Tories the smoothest of political rides. This was not something as humdrum as a broken promise from a manifesto published months or even years ago; this was, as astute political commentators were quick to point out, a U-turn on a four-day-old manifesto pledge that was without precedent in UK political history.
Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised. This mother of all U-turns fit neatly into a pattern of similar reversals that had plagued the Tory government since May's unopposed elevation to high office following the Brexit vote. In the 2017 Budget, for instance, Philip Hammond announced that he would be increasing National Insurance Contributions for the self-employed…before doing an about-turn a week later and revealing that he would no longer be increasing NICS in that parliament. Likewise, Theresa May herself had repeatedly stated that there would be no snap election…right up until the moment she announced that there would be a snap election. As May pitched to a skeptical media a fitful, surly defence of her party's turnabout on social care, the Conservative slogan--"Strong and Stable Leadership", repeated ad nauseum--was mocked by mainstream reporters who had up until then tugged their forelock in her presence, and lampooned mercilessly on social media platforms. If the prime minister's subsequent interview with Andrew Neil had been conceived as an exercise in damage limitation, all it did was reveal her as weak and equivocal, unable to admit, in the teeth of the facts, that she had made an embarrassing U-turn. Instead, she had been "honest with the British public", she claimed, while insisting that her promise of an "absolute limit" on the amount people would have to pay for their care was merely clarification of an existing manifesto pledge, not a total volte-face.
This time, no one was buying it. The mask of strength was slipping. Far from projecting stability, she looked like a woman wobbling on a pair of overpriced, ill-fitting stilettos. This wasn't the first time that May had been exposed as someone who lacked warmth, empathy or visible charm; as someone unable to deal with tough questions outside of the hermetically sealed political environments carefully stage-managed by her brutish campaign manager, Lynton Crosby. Unlike her Labour opponent, she had no recognisable rapport with the electorate, and little conception of the real world difficulties experienced by those at the sharp end of her government's policies. A few weeks earlier, confronted by a woman with learning disabilities angered by the impact of Tory cuts to social care, May had appeared awkward and nonplussed, ultimately conflating learning disabilities with mental health problems, much to the chagrin of her interlocutor. During a TV interview with Andrew Marr, asked why some nurses were forced to use food banks, May responded that there were "many complex reasons", displaying an almost callous disregard for the hardships and privations endured by public sector workers as a direct consequence of Tory cuts and real-term freezes to their pay. Her refusal to engage Jeremy Corbyn and the other party leaders in a televised debate, and subsequent declaration that the public got nothing out of them - despite a Yougov poll suggesting only 20% were opposed to the idea, and 56% were strongly in favour - implied an alarming disengagement from the prevailing national mood. Her arrogant disregard for large sections of the electorate seemed to have been enshrined in her party's manifesto which--in stark contrast to Labour's progressive, responsible and, most importantly, costed alternative to austerity, published a week earlier--targeted many of their core voters: the elderly and the lower middle-classes.
The Tories were on the ropes, their lead over Labour down to 9 points in some polls--a situation that would have been inconceivable to the bean counters in Tory HQ when the snap election was announced a few weeks earlier. As the sun set on Monday, 22nd May, it appeared that the winds of political change just might be in the air, after all…
And then something terrible happened in Manchester.
"The banality of evil", a phrase first coined by Hannah Arendt in her book about the trial of Nazi lieutenant-colonel Adolf Eichmann, can be applied both to those who would seek to kill or maim innocent civilians going about their daily business, and those who would hide behind a mask of moral outrage to gain political capital from just such an event. I believe the perpetrator of the Manchester bomb to be an example of the former scenario, and the current prime minister to be the embodiment of the latter. Listening to May's rhetoric in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing, one can't help but hear echoes of John Major back in 1993, when he declared that "Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less." Back then, Major was referring to a raft of planned legislation on law and order, but his words still resonate as a clarion call to May and her terror crusaders.
Historically, in the wake of terrorist incidents, the right has always specialised--if that's the apposite word--in the moribund language of outrage. May's carefully prepped reaction to the Manchester bombing was infused with all the familiar, overused tropes of right-wing indignation. As always, the bomber was variously described as "evil", "sick", "depraved" and "cowardly". Likewise, the British people would "prevail over hateful ideology", while "cowardice [would] always be defeated by bravery" (I'm not so sure the families of the twenty two victims would overwhelmingly concur with this last statement). As an immaculately sombre May basked in what many people on the internet were beginning to call her "Falklands Moment", the British state descended, as it always does, into the clichés of a second-rate espionage novel: a sub-Le Carre world of COBRA meetings, terror networks and operations codenamed "Temperer" or some other nonsense. May's decision to raise the terror threat level from "severe" to "critical", and to order the army onto the streets, was not so much a statement of solidarity with the grief-stricken people of Manchester as a presentiment of the war-footing this country would shortly be on. Rather than allow the people of Manchester time and space to grieve for their loved ones, or assuage their fears, May hijacked the crisis for her own political ends, fomenting unnecessary tension and anxiety in a city already numbed and incapacitated by the terrible events that had befallen it the previous night
In the short term, electoral campaigning was, understandably, suspended. It's to be hoped, however, that as the election resumes in earnest on Friday 26th May, intelligent, rigorous political discourse will not. For make no mistake, what happens over the next two weeks will shape this country's domestic and international agenda for an entire generation. In order to ensure it is the "right" agenda, the Tories and their allies in the right wing media will almost certainly ramp up their rhetoric of fear, just as it is certain that the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, will be depicted as weak, indecisive, and, if things start to go south for the Tories once again, a terrorist sympathiser. As army patrols are stationed on the streets outside Westminster, Downing Street, and all the other symbolic and visible icons of political power, an emotionally fragile electorate, anaesthetized to the wider issues of the election by the media's blanket coverage of the bombing, may once again be lulled into a state of dazed compliance by the slogans of stability and security emanating from the right wing media.
In this heightened atmosphere of fear and paranoia, it is essential that the left remain vigilant and robust while holding fast to their core principles; that they foreground the hypocrisy of a government that professes to be strong and stable on terror, yet cuts police numbers by 20,000, leaving cities like Manchester at greater risk; that they expose the double-standards of a PM who praises the emergency services for their heroic response, while at the same time freezing public sector pay rises at a miserly 1%. They must stand up to a government whose foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, months before the Manchester bombing, and with a working majority in the House of Commons of just 17 seats, claimed Britain could join the US in strikes against the Syrian regime without a parliamentary vote. Imagine how many parliamentary processes a Tory government with a huge majority could bypass? Already we hear noises about a further crackdown on the internet, and a widening of the definition of "extremism", while at the G7 summit, Theresa May preps NATO for more airstrikes and military action against Syria and/or Libya, precipitating another cycle of violence that will end with one right wing Prime Minister or another condemning yet another "evil, cowardly, sick, depraved act" a few years down the line. Meanwhile, in a week when Theresa May has needlessly called the army out onto our streets, relegated to the middle pages of newspapers and sidebars of internet pages is yet another report on the parlous state and chronic underfunding of the NHS.
We, the voters, must not allow the urgent problems facing our society to be marginalized by the actions of a single fanatic--not when the number of homeless people on our streets continues to skyrocket, the government's stated position on health and social care changes by the day, and a Tory prime minister can claim that the Conservative party, backed to the tune of £19m by billionaire donors for this election, are no longer about "untrammelled free markets", but are the true representatives of the working class…
Faced with the calamitous, unspeakable events of Manchester, even the most rational mind can become clouded and the temptation to turn for answers to those whose mundane solutions appeal to our baser instincts sometimes proves irresistible. The dilemma facing the left is to convince the electorate that eschewing the dried-up rhetoric of manufactured outrage does not make you weak on terror, or that rejecting the tried and untrustworthy methods of military intervention as a first resort does not make you incapable of leading your country. We can't let one explosion decide this election, or distort the moral compass of our nation. We must all of us strive to condemn less, and understand more.
Andrew Jury is forty seven years old, lives in England, and his essay, "Dystopia Now," was published in Fear of Monkeys last year.