Idling towards the apocalypse

Even after the fall of Silvio Berlusconi, Italians are in little doubt just how bad a state their co

During these last days the Piazza della Repubblica in Urbino - a city crowned by its towering Ducal Palace and with increasing numbers of shops closing - has been "occupied" by students in a huddle of tents. Facing a future of semi-employment or joblessness, they have coined slogans condemning the banks and bankers, and demanded more funds for the education system. The citizens of Urbino have looked on, for the most part in silence.

Silvio Berlusconi's overthrow in Rome has been high drama, and each morning customers in the city's cafés study the papers with furrowed brows. In order to rescue Italy from itself and salvage something from an economy weakened by the operations of the free market, there has, in effect, been a coup d'état, skilfully carried out by President Giorgio Napolitano.

It threw out an elected government in mid-office without the slightest reference to the electors, as the scoundrelly Berlusconi rightly protests in turn.
But then Italy was no true representative democracy to start with. Its party placemen and placewomen, imposed on constituencies, are largely invisible to local people - there are no Friday surgeries here - and the scale of corruption is such as to make Britain's political system seem pure. (Most Italians mistakenly think Britain is a political and ethical utopia. Little do they know.)

“It was not a coup," says the deputy secretary of the Urbino commune, Roberto Chicarella, unlocking the door of his office and courteously ushering me in. Dr Chicarella turns out to have been a student of Napolitano, who taught a course in political economy at the Italian Communist Party's school for would-be apparatchiks back in the mid-1960s. Indeed, Urbino has been run by the left (now a pseudo left) uninterruptedly since the Second World War. Yet there is nothing to scoff at in these pretences; no one in Italy could quite match the career of Baron Prescott of Kingston-upon-Hull - or the ex-Trotskyites, some working for MI5, who now have their hands in Britain's tills.

“Berlusconi," Chicarella argues, "had become too weak. His party was folding, and the crisis was out of control. He knew himself that the time had come to resign."

Business as usual

But what, I ask, is an old communist like Napolitano doing handing Italy over to bureaucrats and Eurocrats, bankers and academics? With communism and socialism gone and never to return, however, I know the answer to my own question.

“In a market economy which has escaped the control even of those who are in favour of it," the deputy secretary replies, "there was no alternative to using those who know the market and who know what instruments are effective in it. It is not a question of left and right. You have to be pragmatic."

Public spending in Italy "has swollen to unmanageable proportions, public adminis­tration is inefficient and the public deficit is vast". Yes, Europe has reason to tremble. Chicarella goes further; here is an ex-Communist Party official who courageously concedes that "the right is right when it criticises the public sector's abuses. To cut useless public expenditure is an ethical duty." He even wants a "freer labour market".

Over the Apennines in Rome, behind the façade of rule by Prime Minister Mario Monti and his executive - a true word for the presidentially imposed regime - business is much as usual. Principle plays little part. Some of Berlusconi's members of parliament are hanging on to the old goat's coat-tails, hoping for a change in his fortunes, while others seek favour from Monti. As in ancient Rome, allegiance is less to party than to patron: a Berlusconi yesterday, a Monti today.

Berlusconi's People of Freedom party is (or perhaps was) less a political movement than a business enterprise. Its rewards, as increasingly in Britain, have been illicit wealth and shameless feeding from the public trough. Gaining the poltrona, or seat, of office, and not the common good, is the main object of political endeavour. In Italy, this chair has been unceremoniously pulled from under Berlusconi while he was still sitting on it, but his followers and dependants are keeping their eyes open for whatever the next turn of events may bring.

The Machiavellian stab-in-the-back is another currency of the Roman scene, in which none can be trusted. Some of Berlusconi's parliamentarians rose to their feet to salute the new consul, whether from habit of sycophancy or in hope of the coming of a messiah, or both. Others threw punches at their colleagues; here, infighting has a literal meaning. But in the vote of confidence won in both houses by Monti, a vote that gave retrospective "democratic" approval to the putsch that brought him to office, most of Berlusconi's parliamentarians voted for the would-be Saviour. Among those who did not were Benito Mussolini's granddaughter and a character unable to vote because he was under house arrest.

In Urbino, as elsewhere in Italy, disgust with the political class is visceral; under the surface there is the same mood as in Britain. "Politics has ruined everything," says a voice in the piazza. Dangerously, he speaks for most of the people. For some, even Monti and his government merely represent "50 more politicians to pay for". The predations on the public purse, including lifelong pensions after a single term in parliament, are hard to accept when the national economy is sinking. There is even contempt for the commune of Urbino. Most see it as a closed, small-town mafia of insiders, whatever its ostensible colour.

Above all, the way Berlusconi reduced a proud country to ridicule - "Burlesconi", some call him - has aroused a sense of shame. Not surprising, therefore, this being Italy, that there is a desire among many for a "strong man", un uomo forte, to get the country out of its pickle.

With his built-up shoes and hair implants, Berlusconi never was the sinless saviour for whom Catholic Italy secretly craves. But the virtues of a Monti, welcome as they are to most Italians ("We need a just man, a serious man," the vintner Gilberto Calcinari tells me) will not be enough, either, as the going gets rougher.

Italians - even the ousted Berlusconi, temporarily - have given Monti the green light only because the deluge awaits if, or when, he fails. Even Berlusconi knows this. The showgirls have gone back to the limbo whence they came and there are now no overgrown schoolboys in government, no Camerons, Goves or Osbornes. The youngest member of Monti's team, the minister of health, is 56 and the average age of cabinet ministers is 67.

Thomas Hobbes would have approved. To give good counsel in government, he wrote in the Leviathan, "requires the age and observation of a man in years" as well as "great knowledge . . . not to be attained without study".

But what has the new team, acting under EU orders, to offer Italy in its great crisis? The answer is the further rape of the public domain by privatisation, as in Britain: increased taxes with cuts in public spending, austerity with fairness, benefit curbs with social justice, "national cohesion" with "liberalisation", or pie-in-the-sky served with chalk and cheese. And to what end? Growth, growth and more growth, until the Italians are truly stuffed. Even Chicarella, Napolitano's former student, wants to see the labour market liberalised. He thinks there is
no alternative.

Smile of the crocodile

Meanwhile, the grotesque Berlusconi has cynically occupied the high ground, able to exploit the coup against him by claiming to be the guardian of Italian democracy. At the same time, he is seeking to escape justice in the criminal and civil cases pending against him. "He is a crocodile in the water," says Calcinari the vintner. "Only his eyes can be seen."

Out in the town, much worse can be heard, even if "most Italians hide their real feelings", as someone tells me. Better that the English in Tuscany and Umbria don't know what their neighbours really think of them.

The anger at Italy's inequalities is palpable; so, too, the feelings of despair that a well-placed relative or a high-powered contact counts for more here than merit. There is also growing fear for the future. It is no surprise that there are fascistic sentiments in the air. Xenophobia is at their core. "I'd willingly put on a black shirt and machine-gun the marocchini [Moroccans]," a man in the piazza tells me.

“If Monti doesn't succeed, will it be the Apocalypse?" I asked Chicarella, half-joking. He seemed afraid to agree. Whether these are the last days of the Roman empire, or the European Union, no one can tell. The atmosphere at times reminds me of eastern Europe in the 1980s as its regimes fell, heralding the disasters of the "free market".

The half-dozen tents have gone now from the central piazza in Urbino. The "occupying" students have folded them up and moved on. The square's hosed-down cobbles shine in the autumn sun.

David Selbourne was made an Officer of the Italian Republic's Order of Merit by President Carlo Ciampi in June 2001

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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