Earthquakes are never a single seismic disturbance, so the aftershocks from the British referendum can be expected to rumble on for some time.
What follows is largely for the benefit of American readers. Here is what happened yesterday in the space of a single frantic morning in Westminster.
Before most of us had consumed our first slice of breakfast toast, Michael Gove – hitherto perceived as a crony and potential running mate of Boris Johnson in the quest for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and so, under Britain’s quirky system of democracy, for the office of prime minister – announced that he would himself be a contestant in the election. Apparently stunned by his fellow Brexiteer’s act of betrayal, and running out of supporters so fast that he must have felt like a man on a railway station platform watching his train leave, Boris promptly announced that he would not be a candidate.
Journalists did not have to be veteran sleuths to sniff conspiracies in the air because the air was filled with nothing else. Even the oxygen aroused suspicions. Below ground, there were rats in the cellar, the scampering to and fro clearly audible above the sound of the media scrum dashing off to find literary analogies to what they had just witnessed in three hastily reconstructed press conferences.
Immediately invoked, of course, was Shakespeare. It could hardly be otherwise. Gove was virtually type-cast as Brutus, having despatched not only Johnson that very morning but Cameron a few weeks earlier. Even Mrs Gove was cited. She is, in addition to being Mrs. Gove, a columnist for the Daily Mail, writing under the name Sarah Vine. Gove/Vine had, it seemed, ‘accidentally’ leaked an email she had sent to her husband admonishing him to pin Johnson down on his promises. These were thought to be shaky after a ‘wet’ column Johnson had written for the Daily Telegraph on Monday, which seemed to suggest that Britain ought to be able to negotiate a deal that would enable it to enjoy all the benefits of EU membership without actually being a member. In other words, the author now wished to eat his cake and have it too, just as some disappointed Remainers do. Gore/Vine was immediately dubbed (what else?) Lady Macbeth. Johnson himself had previously been reviled as Cassius for his own ‘betrayal’ of Prime Minister David Cameron, after which many Westminster Tories were shocked not just by the dastardly act itself but by Johnson’s scornful references to his former boss and mentor during the Brexit campaign.
Some journalists, perhaps less attuned to the Bard, invoked television serials. ‘Game of Thrones’, a dense and violent tale of medieval intrigue and insurrection – inscrutable to most viewers, it must be said – was mentioned so often that some of us began to be confused about whether what we were hearing were the real stories or the fictional ones, both being equally entertaining. The difference, when one gave the matter some thought, was sex. ‘Game of Thrones’ has a lot of it, the real drama none – or at least none that could be discerned as having played a significant role.
‘House of Cards’ was another obvious parallel with reality, although just who Kevin Spacey has been impersonating is hard to decide. And, inevitably, ‘Yes, Minister’ was called into action, if only to provide a little light relief from all the plotting and stabbing and recriminating.
Almost overlooked in the Gove-Johnson imbroglio was the emergence of three other candidates for the Tory leadership. One of them,
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, immediately became the front-runner, if not the hot favourite – although ‘hot’ is not a word one normally hears applied to a minister renowned for being rather cold and stand-offish. The others were Andrea Leadsom, an energy minister, and little known before her noisy role in the Brexit campaign, and Stephen Crabb, the Work and Pensions Secretary, a quiet member of the Remain team with a genuine and much-touted working-class pedigree.
The equation now, according to the Westminster chatter, is whether, political philosophies aside, May’s perceived disadvantage as a Remainer will be offset by Gove’s reputational deficiency as a double-assassin.
This writer’s money is on Mrs. May, but if the past few days, and yesterday in particular, have made anything clear – sometimes as mud – it is that nothing can be taken for granted.
Meanwhile, over in the Labour Party, chaos reigned with such effortless primacy that nothing emerged worth reporting. Just in case you’ve forgotten, Jeremy Corbyn is the party leader. He is despised by the majority of his parliamentary colleagues as weak and feckless. They have, accordingly, demanded his resignation. He is, however, equally loved as honest and sincere by the majority of other constituency party and union members and they, accordingly, have urged him to ‘stick it out’. Unless Corbyn resigns – the betting is 50-50 – the matter will probably soon be put to a vote, which Corbyn is bound to win as, under party rules introduced by his predecessor, rank-and file members outnumber their elected MPs by at least ten-to-one.
So, there you have it: a viper’s nest of intrigue at Westminster, and a state of confusion (and exasperation) across the rest of England. Not, though, in Scotland, where spears are being sharpened and faces painted blue.
If you have nothing better to do, watch this space.
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