Britain is in the throes of an election campaign – and a sorry affair it is turning out to be.
‘Throes’ is, I think, le mot juste. I looked up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as follows: “intense or violent pain and struggle, especially accompanying birth, death or great change”. There, it fits the bill perfectly.
I can’t speak for my fellow-electors, but nothing I have heard so far, from left, right or centre, remotely fills me with confidence. Much of it fills me with dread. In this country, the political parties issue election manifestos. The OED defines ‘manifesto’ as “a public declaration of policy and aims …” Well, nothing I have read so far – admittedly not a great deal – from the manifestos of the three major (English) parties leads me to believe that any of them conform to the OED’s description beyond soaring platitudes and empty promises. The public debates have thrown off considerable heat and little light. In preparing to negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union the country is entering uncharted waters. Everything else is really rather superfluous. If our negotiators cock up Brexit then only the Sky Gods will know where the nation is heading. The Prime Minister has been saying as much for some time, and she is right.
The opposition parties can talk all they want about funding the National Health Service, and raising or lowering taxes, and dispensing or withdrawing benefits, but the arguments are all for nought if we don’t know what Britain’s future trading status is going to be, or even what we are going to have to pay for the divorce from the EU.
Yes, Life Goes On, as it must, but the British government now finds itself, as some of us predicted, running a substantial business without the benefit of a business plan, or anything resembling one. Ban The Bomb, by all means. Give Scotland its independence, or not. Who cares any more? Talk of policies that will reduce, or increase, immigration is irrelevant. The discussions on these issues are taking place in a vacuum. So is much else in this so-called campaign.
At the start of the campaign proper, a couple of weeks back, the Conservatives had an unassailable lead in the opinion polls, the election thereby reduced to little more than a formal process ending in a huge Tory landslide. That would greatly ‘strengthen our hand’ in negotiations with Brussels. Then David Davis and others could really take a swipe at those bullying bureaucratic bombasts across the Channel.
How different things look now. The opinion polls – which after a series of missteps we all had supposed were now discredited – are now putting it about that the Tory lead has shrunk to a few percentage points. The figures approach what pollsters call an ‘acceptable margin of error’.
In the face of this worrying news for her party, Theresa May seems intent on committing hara kiri. Confronted by public outcry, she has changed positions several times on several economic issues. She has, worse, needlessly promised to ‘means test’ the fuel allowance – to which all elderly citizens, rich and poor, are entitled- and it proposes to take into consideration the value of a house when calculating what the elderly will have to pay for care – the so-called dementia tax.
Now, who among her advisers told her that taking benefits away from electors would win their votes? Someone who thought that the Tories could hardly fail to lose, whatever the government did, especially given the vibrancy of the economy and the decrepitude of the opposition.
By listening to such advice, Mrs. May has done herself no favours. Jeremy Corbyn is suddenly starting to look like the Defender of the Little Man that the little men have been yearning for, and what the Labour Party leader is supposed to be. Corbyn still talks drivel about economic matters, but the stumbling Tories, overflowing with hubris and arrogance, have somehow managed to out-drivel him.
The Tories will almost certainly win anyway, but the whole point of this election was not just to win but win big, to get a ringing endorsement from the electorate to wave in the face of the EU negotiators. Right now, it looks as if what we’ll be waving is a tatty white handkerchief.
There is still time for the Tories to get a grip, still time for Corbyn to stumble into incoherence. But not as much time as there was a fortnight ago. And no sign that Theresa May has got a grip of the situation.
“May we live in interesting times,” some ancient Chinese gentlemen said. We are.