On Monday 31 January in the House of Commons, the Furies, personified by Theresa May, took their revenge on the Prime Minister. Viciously exposing the contradictory nonsense of Boris Johnson’s defence, May took aim at the man she blames for curtailing her own premiership: “Either he had not read the rules, or understood the rules,” she said, “or thought they didn’t apply to him… which was it?” It was an act of revenge for which May has waited patiently, and the Conservative Party should remember it as the moment at which it began to recover its lost moral standing.
Revenge in politics is a sweet vindication. The peerless modern example, which May must have had in mind, is Geoffrey Howe unleashing his anger at Margaret Thatcher in a devastating Commons speech in November 1990 that catalysed the ending of Thatcher’s time in office. The whole cycle of Conservative politics since then can be seen as a revenger’s tragedy on the issue of Europe. First one side and then the other exacts its revenge in a dispute stretching all the way to Britain’s departure from the EU.
The obvious lesson is that revenge multiplies and corrodes all those who yield to its temptation. In How Democracies Die, Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky make a persuasive case that American politics is locked in an endless cycle of revenge, of which President Trump’s manifold grievances were just the latest and most blatant expression. The revenge cycle began, they argue, with the obstructive tactics of Newt Gingrich during the Clinton presidency. The Democrats then retaliated with equally obstreperous behaviour in Congress during the Bush years, and the Republicans got their own back again by making life impossible for President Obama. Revenge, the authors say, has replaced forbearance as one of the tacit conventions of the constitution. Votes in Congress now fall along partisan lines more frequently than ever before. Politics is impossible when it becomes a low-grade remake of Homer’s Iliad in which there is barely a character who is not seeking to avenge something.
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There was a time when these disputes were settled in a more cavalier fashion. After a political lifetime of being annoyed by Alexander Hamilton’s chicanery, Aaron Burr, an unsuccessful presidential candidate, ran out of patience and challenged Hamilton to a duel in July 1804. Hamilton unwisely accepted and was mortally wounded. In Britain in 1809 the war minister, Lord Castlereagh, and the foreign secretary, George Canning, fought a duel on Putney Heath (giving John Campbell the title of his 2009 book on great political rivalries: Pistols at Dawn). It didn’t work. Castlereagh shot Canning in the thigh and they both resigned in ignominy.
But for all the dangers of revenge, it can be useful as a political plan. Indeed, as a classicist, Boris Johnson ought to appreciate this: it is the narrative of the Oresteia, the great revenge trilogy by Aeschylus. The Oresteia traces how revenge can turn into legitimate and durable change. In the first two plays, revenge begets revenge. Clytemnestra shows no remorse for the murder of her husband, and she is herself disposed of by her children, Orestes and Electra. However, events then take a surprisingly legal twist. In the final play Orestes is pursued by the Furies, the goddess tribunes of justice, but the goddess Athena intervenes to stage a trial in court. Athena prevails on the Furies to accept and uphold legal authority, and order of a sort is established.
This is what the Conservative Party needs to do. The only way to restore order is to exact maximum revenge on Boris Johnson, the tragic figure it has allowed to assume the centre of its stage. In Pistols at Dawn, Campbell studies the rivalries of Pitt and Fox, Disraeli and Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George, Heath and Thatcher, and Blair and Brown. The rivalries are dramas of revenge only ended by the victory of one or other of the protagonists. The saddest saga in the book is the dispute between Hugh Gaitskell and Aneurin Bevan, which disfigured Labour politics for a decade because neither could knock out the other.
The Tory party needs to find its Furies and they need to act. The offences against decency that Boris Johnson commits stain the body politic. The accusation that Keir Starmer, when he was director of public prosecutions, stood in the way of prosecuting Jimmy Savile for his abuse of minors was a desperate new low in British parliamentary rhetoric. It was good to see the former chief whip Julian Smith disavow such a nasty, baseless charge. But the condemnation must not stop there.
It is easy to take Theresa May’s stinging rebuke less seriously precisely because her motivation is in part personal. But the desire for revenge can be a telling guide that a new order is now required. May has once before delivered to the Conservatives the verdict that, in the eyes of the public, they had become the nasty party. She did it again in the Commons on 31 January.
Theresa May cannot do to Boris Johnson what Boris Johnson did to her because she no longer has the power. When Johnson betrayed her, he was the coming man with Brexit at his back. She is the former prime minister who failed to get Brexit done and who has the better part of her career at her back. But she is right, and she poses the choice: take revenge and restore order or submit a man unfit for office to the verdict of the people.
This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under