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From hubris to nemesis: the Conservative Party in crisis

Less than 18 months into her premiership, Theresa May presides over a lethally divided cabinet. Can anything restore her authority?

A new joke is doing the rounds of the parliamentary Tory party, and God knows they need something to laugh about. It is quite simple: “The end of May is in November.” It is a long way from the present feeding frenzy about the repellent behaviour of lecherous, predatory or ill-mannered male MPs to forcing the end of Theresa May’s rule. But there is a smell of decay about the Tory party under her leadership, not simply in its moral qualities but in its executive ones, as though its very heart is rotten. The Brexit negotiations have become an excuse for inertia and drift in every other area of policy. And, with the tactics of Michel Barnier and the EU commission irritating even some European politicians, Tories are appalled that so little effort is being made to argue the British case to the public: it is as if unhealthy introspection has taken over entirely.

On top of all this Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, commits a blunder before a select committee about a British woman in an Iranian jail that could land her with a further five years’ incarceration; and Priti Patel, the International Development Secretary, first denies having held unauthorised meetings with senior Israelis while on holiday then, even more humiliatingly, retracts her denial line-by-line. A strong and stable Prime Minister would probably have swiftly sacked both of them.

Patel’s eventual demise was an object lesson in how not to run a cabinet. First, so weak was May’s authority that Patel felt it unnecessary to make a full disclosure of her meetings with Israelis in the first place. Second, Patel’s junior minister, Alistair Burt, had to humiliate himself in the Commons on Tuesday by defending her actions even though it is clear the decision to sack her had been taken. Third, there was the further absurdity of the media tracking Patel’s flight back from Kenya, making her forced resignation into a circus event, and heaping further ridicule on the government. And fourth, even though May had had more than 24 hours to prepare for her meeting with Patel, she still delayed overnight the announcement of a replacement, because of her fear of causing further upset in her ranks. If more evidence were needed that this cannot go on much longer, we now have it.

A former long-serving cabinet minister, now in the Lords, observed to me before the torrent of sleaze allegations that in the best part of 50 years at Westminster he had never seen a cabinet so incompetent, so poorly led and so lacking in strategic sense. Not long afterwards, an ex-donor to the party told me something similar with, if anything, even more disgust and disbelief. Tories are dismayed that, in the face of a Corbyn opposition, matters are being allowed to slip in this way. Too many people have lost confidence in the Tory party and its leader; and an increasingly divided party, for whom the present furore has provided yet another excuse for in-fighting and score-settling, appears to be losing confidence in itself.

None of this means Labour will be in power soon: even if May were to fall, her party would, with the Democratic Unionists, make sure there was no general election. And Labour has its own problems, some apparently worse than the Tories’s, such as the story of a young woman, Bex Bailey, being raped at a party event and a Labour official urging her to keep quiet about it (though a Tory worker, and now a Liberal Democrat one, have also alleged similar experiences).

Whatever her other faults, May has manifestly never participated in offensive conduct towards women or encouraged it. However, the high-profile cases in her party have badly damaged her because of what they say about her judgment, and in the present climate it is hard to believe the worst is over.

Two of those embroiled already are men in whom May has reposed her deepest trust. Michael Fallon, who seems to have regarded women rather as dogs regard lamp posts, revelled in the media’s labelling of him as the Prime Minister’s Rottweiler. In reality he was simply a man who would profess to believe in anything his ambition required (a long-time professed Eurosceptic, he became a devoted supporter of Remain, and collected a knighthood in David Cameron’s embarrassing resignation honours list).

Damian Green, the First Secretary of State (and, in effect, May’s deputy), is accused of groping a female art critic 30 years his junior, and also of having extreme pornography on a computer in his parliamentary office in 2008 (accusations Green vigorously denies). Green is not universally popular and some colleagues find him a mediocrity; they believe he is in the government, and in such a senior position, because he is almost the only close friend May (who has known him since Oxford) has in politics. If mud sticks to Green, the fact he owes his rise entirely to his old friend will rebound on that person. It is widely believed among Green’s colleagues that May knew about his proclivities when he worked for her at the Home Office.

Part of the inquiry into his behaviour must be to ask what the woman who appointed him knew, and when. Another Tory who was at Oxford in the same generation describes Green as “an act”, by which he means he lacks conviction but is in politics largely because he likes the limelight. That may be unfair: but politics is about perception.

May has shown again that she lacks one of the fundamental abilities required of a leader, which is to deal with what Harold Macmillan called “events”. I wrote in these pages last month that many in her party believed, following the debacle of conference, that she was perhaps one crisis away from the end. That crisis is now upon her, and she has shown similar ineptitude in dealing with it as with its predecessors.

When it broke she, as a woman, was perfectly placed to put her own perspective on the offensive behaviour of men towards women, in a way a man would struggle to do while retaining credibility. She might have taken the view of Julia Hartley-Brewer, a journalist, whose knee Fallon repeatedly touched at a dinner, that while it is unpleasant for women to have to endure unwanted attentions, and the men who do it deserve censure, the women are not necessarily victims in the way that, obviously, Ms Bailey or anyone enduring a sexual assault is. Or she could have reflected the view of Jane Merrick, also a journalist, at whom Fallon “lunged” after a lunch; Merrick has taken a less-relaxed view of his conduct than Ms Hartley-Brewer, as she is entitled to do. But May made no immediate attempt to use her experience as a woman to try to lead opinion and, perhaps, build a new and more acceptable order out of a turbulent situation. Instead, she let the media take, and keep, the initiative.


Picture: Miles Cole

At Prime Minister’s Questions on 25 October, after the disclosures regarding the Labour MP Jared O’Mara’s coarse remarks about women but before her colleagues had been accused, May said that “all of us in the House should have due care and attention to the way in which we refer to other people and should show women in public life the respect they deserve”. It was no doubt sincerely meant but May showed remarkable naivety in not, it seems, letting it cross her mind that some of her own trusties, and not just pond-life from the Labour Party, were guilty of such behaviour. It was another sign of May’s mismanagement of her party, and of the seething hatreds within it, that Fallon should have become the first scalp partly as a result of the determination of a fellow cabinet minister, Andrea Leadsom (who has not enjoyed the prime-ministerial favours that Fallon has), to settle some scores.

The Weinstein-on-Thames scandal has, however, distracted attention from something much more fundamental: that May was in serious trouble before it started. It was always ambitious to believe she would recover from the pitiful way she led the campaign in the general election she need never have called, but her leaden response to the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, her inability to steer the Brexit negotiations, the woeful conference speech, and her failure to maintain collective responsibility in the cabinet proved an incapability that will still be there when the last groper has been defenestrated. She stumbles on only because the resolve, vision and unity needed to replace her and move forward are absent. Hardly anyone in her party expects or wants her to lead them into the next election; fewer and fewer now expect her to last until the end of the Brexit process in 16 months’ time.

A government with a sense of purpose and self-confidence, properly led and with a fully functioning whips’ office, would not have allowed itself to become hostage to fortune by grandstanding about MPs’ bad behaviour. It would have recognised the chance, bordering on a certainty, that some of its own would have been guilty; and it would have prepared itself to deal sharply and swiftly with them in a way that did not expose the Prime Minister to collateral damage.

Rumours about Green have circulated at Westminster for a decade; those about Fallon for even longer. Yet the whips’ office either did not warn May about the dangers of appointing Green her deputy; or, if they did, she ignored them. Either possibility indicates dysfunction. Fallon, identified with May largely because of the willingness with which he did her dirty work – a willingness fuelled by reports that he might soon replace Philip Hammond as Chancellor – ought also to have sounded alarms.

A similar reckless disregard for propriety, and for the potential to cause embarrassment and damage, infects Labour: why else would Corbyn have appointed Kelvin Hopkins, MP for Luton North, to his shadow cabinet when he knew of his behaviour towards young women?

The Liberal Democrats, as well as being faced with a rape allegation, have already had to deal with the incontinence of Lord Rennard; and the SNP too has had its first casualty following the resignation of Mark McDonald over an offensive remark to a female colleague. But none of those parties forms the United Kingdom government, which is why the Tories, who do, should have been more careful. The chief whip at the time of Green’s appointment after the election, and Fallon’s re-appointment, was Gavin Williamson, who has now created a legion of enemies in his party by propelling himself into Fallon’s former job as Defence Secretary. Williamson, who is 41 and MP for South Staffordshire, is one of those post-ideological Tories who thrived under Cameron, whose parliamentary private secretary he became. He has no ministerial experience, hitched himself to May’s leadership bandwagon after the European referendum last year with Cameron’s approval, and has since been in that small circle of people around May on whose (usually poor) advice she seems to rely uncritically.

Williamson’s appointment was further proof of another deficiency: May’s inability to have a serious reshuffle. Backbenchers, aware of the disregard in which this cabinet is held because of its incapacity, have been urging one on her since parliament returned from the summer recess. Her excuse then was that she had only just reconstructed her cabinet (in a minimal way) after the election less than three months earlier. But the pressure has continued: and the argument now is that no radical reconstruction can happen until after the Budget on 22 November.

When still chief whip, Williamson was doing the rounds assuring supporters that either just before or just after Christmas there would be a big reshuffle; it would be designed to eliminate all those sniping against the Prime Minister and to replace them with the completely loyal. Given the way most Tory MPs feel about their leader, finding even two or three of any certified ability who fit that bill will be taxing.

***

Many backbenchers, and not just Brexiteers, want a new chancellor. But what if Hammond were to do something sensible and popular in the Budget, such as reversing George Osborne’s disastrous and revenue-slashing stamp duty reforms, or sorting out universal credit, or even rescuing the licensed trade, which is being taxed out of existence? Could he be sacked then?

And if he couldn’t, would May have the guts to fire Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, who presides over a department in which morale has collapsed and whose own baroque private life has, remarkably, been slow to figure in the current feeding frenzy.

Leadsom was in the departure lounge, May and her circle never having forgiven her for her wounding observation during the leadership campaign about May’s childlessness; but her intervention on Fallon suggests that waving her off might be unwise. If Leadsom makes such effective trouble while inside the cabinet, May should contemplate what she would do outside.

Few believe that if there were a reshuffle May would have the judgment to sack ministers who manifestly can’t hack it – of whom there are many – and replace them with gifted people who, usually because of their superior political antennae or intellect, she finds difficult to handle or, because of her suffocating caution, regards as dangerous. This would cause tension if matters were going well; as they are going badly it is unsustainable. Younger MPs – Kwasi Kwarteng, Tom Tugendhat, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Rishi Sunak, James Cleverly, Nusrat Ghani, Suella Fernandes and Kemi Badenoch – many from ethnic minorities, are grouping together to discuss policies, strategy and the future, a sign not just of political commitment but of restlessness and disappointment. It could yet turn to panic if Labour shows greater signs of cohesion.

If the Prime Minister survives her present troubles, the end of May will not come in November. But soon the pressure to reshuffle will become unbearable. It is hard to imagine how she can emerge from that process undamaged, given her knack for doing the wrong thing. May ran out of credit after the election. Now, her lack of grip and judgment exposed again, she is running out of options, and running out of time.

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. His latest book, “The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914”, is published by Random House 

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 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship

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“Senior year burns brightly. There is a vividness in worlds coming to an end”: Lady Bird’s aesthetic of memory

“The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold on to it.”

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is acutely aware of time. She knows that her trip with her mother to a Californian college and back took 21 hours and five minutes, the same amount of time it takes to listen to The Grapes of Wrath, in full, on cassette. She knows that Alanis Morisette wrote ‘Hand in My Pocket’ in “only ten minutes”. She knows that, tragically, UC Davis, the state college she is accepted into, is just thirty minutes away from her house – “less, if you’re driving fast.”

She is less sure on when the “normal time” to touch a penis or have sex is – and seems, as she reaches for a more cultured, more independent, more meaningful future, quite unaware that she is rapidly passing through a distinct and special period of her own life. “I wish I could live through something,” she sighs, staring out of the car window at her hometown of Sacremento as it literally and metaphorically rushes behind her, into her past.

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a coming-of-age film: like most works that fall under that broad label, it is more nostalgically concerned with the age its protagonist is forced to leave behind than the age she is coming into. It’s a loving portrait of Lady Bird’s senior year, told in a series of stylised, rose-tinted vignettes: brief shots of girls slow dancing with each other at themed dances, of parents cheering at graduation and school plays, of boys’ names inked onto walls like a secret tattoo. “I only ever write from a place of love,” Gerwig (who both wrote and directed the film, which stars Saoirse Ronan as the titular central character) has told Vulture. .

At a glance, the structure of Gerwig’s film is deeply traditional: it covers one school year in full, from Lady Bird’s first day of senior year to her heading off to college. It’s a formula that many high school movies rely on: from coming-of-age films like Juno (which is interspersed with title cards reading “Spring”, “Summer”, and so on), Mean Girls (documenting Cady’s journey from outcast on the first day of the year to crowned queen bee at the Spring Fling to fully-functioning human on the first day of the next school year) and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, to franchises like High School Musical and Harry Potter. TV series, too, often build each season around an academic year: from Freaks and Geeks to Gilmore Girls to Gossip Girl: is it any wonder that K. Austin Collins, in The Ringer, writes that Lady Bird is “packing an entire TV season’s worth of material into under two hours”?

It’s not surprising that cultural representations of youth are constructed around the fundamental timetable of most teenagers’ lives. As Gerwig explains in Lady Bird’s production notes, “When you are a teenager in America, you organize your life around academic years: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior. It always made sense to me to tell the story of the whole year. The rituals of the year, the circularity.”

So Lady Bird passes through many scholastic events during her story (the first day back and the final graduation ceremony; the fall musical and the spring play; the ice breaking dance and the last prom). Gerwig’s shooting script is segmented by directions in bold: “SECOND SEMESTER” (p. 50), “SUMMER (AGAIN)” (p.100).

But even as Gerwig speaks of her awareness of the organised, ritualistic structure of a school year, she does so with fluidity. Her conception of time is much less rigid, than, say, JK Rowling’s meticulous plans for her plots to be precisely timed to interact with Halloween feasts, Christmas and Easter holidays, Quidditch matches and final exams. “The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold onto it,” Gerwig continues. “It is something beautiful that you never appreciated and ends just as you come to understand it.”

“Senior year burns brightly and is also disappearing as quickly as it emerges. The way we end where we began. It is a spiralling upwards. There is a certain vividness in worlds that are coming to an end.”

When Gerwig was first discussing Lady Bird with her cinematographer, Sam Levy, she told him she wanted the film to “look and feel like a memory”. Together, they collated images they were drawn to and reproduced them using a cheap photocopier, repeating the process several times, until the pictures were distressed and distanced from their originals. This was, for them, “the aesthetic of a memory”. They deliberately used older lenses to try and recreate this effect on screen: specifically combining the Alexa Mini digital camera with Panavision lenses from the Sixties and Seventies. “We wanted the colour to look like a memory of a time, not to be literally exactly how the world looks,” Gerwig adds in her production notes, explaining that she and Levy based their colour palette on the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos.

She wanted each shot to be presentational and specifically framed, “like a Medieval triptych”. “We talked about always having a sense of the proscenium,” she adds, “of the film unfolding in a series of placed scenes like Stations of the Cross presents the story of the Passion.”

We see Lady Bird in her school chapel on the first day of term, her chin rested on linked fingers, her eyes raised to a biblical tableau high above her. We see her shot upside down, her head on a paisley carpet, giggling while chomping down on un-consecrated wafers with her best friend, Julie. We see her lying on the grass of a rose garden at night with her first boyfriend, Danny, shouting to the stars. We see her in just a towel, with wet her, talking to her mother about her father’s depression in an unusually small voice. We see her sat in the back of her parent’s car, on her way to the airport as she leaves for college, while the sun sets. Such shots are imbued with the blush and ceremony that we retroactively ascribe to firsts and lasts, and to moments that acquire increased significance only in memory.

It is also the specificity of Lady Bird’s 2002 setting, with references as wide-reaching as Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’, clove cigarettes, Alanis Morisette and post-9/11 paranoia, that enables  it to achieve the status of memory for an adult audience. So, too, does its attention to the details of teenage life – a world of casts and nosebleeds as much as college applications and driving tests.

Lady Bird has been praised in several reviews (including those in the Guardian, the LA Times, The Atlantic and the AV Club) for its specificity, authenticity and sincerity. One of Gerwig’s other films, Frances Ha, opens with a montage that includes a few seconds of Gerwig, as Frances, reading Lionel Trilling’s work of literary criticism, Sincerity and Authenticity. “To praise a work of literature by calling it sincere,” Frances reads aloud, “is now at best a way of saying that, although it may be given no aesthetic or intellectual admiration –’”. We cut to a different moment. “Basically, the question she’s setting up is, what do we mean by sincerity, and does it diminish the thing?” Gerwig reflects to Vulture. “I’ve always felt like it heightens it.”  In Lady Bird, Gerwig attempts to unite deliberately stylised, artful aesthetics with an emotional authenticity and sincerity.

“I kept saying that I wanted to feel as if the film was ‘over there’”, she says in the production notes. “I always wanted to feel the frame and to feel the medium of cinema.”

Lady Bird is almost entirely composed of very short scenes – most are under a minute long. Some are mere flashes: Lady Bird screaming in the street after kissing Danny for the first time, brief glimpses of rehearsals for the school musical, or the three-second, three-shot-long scene of Lady Bird getting her cast removed while her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) watches on. Many of them are non-essential for the plot: fleeting shots see Lady Bird wandering the streets near her home, working lazily in local cafés and supermarkets, cheating on a math final. “I wanted to bring in moments, pieces of B-roll, to create an emotional memory,” Nick Hoey, the film’s editor explains, in language strikingly similar to Gerwig’s. “The idea of things tumbling forward and things you hold on to.” The result is a film almost built out of a sequence of images.

Hoey “understood the tone we were going for,” Gerwig explains in the notes – the idea that the film was like an up-tempo pop song that you only realise is sad when someone does a slowed-down cover version. “Houy understood the lightness I wanted, the way the film would be frothy and exciting like waves breaking on a beach, but that then suddenly the undertow would become apparent and before you know it, you are in much deeper waters than you expected.” Nick Hoey insists that Gerwig’s script already “had editing built into it”.

Only three scenes are over three minutes long; two bookend the film. The first is the opening car ride that sees Marion and Lady Bird laugh, cry and scream with rage at each other, as Lady Bird expresses her desire to live a life outside of Sacramento, “where culture is”, and Marion wonders aloud, “How did I raise such a snob?”

The last is the scene where a desperately hungover, brand new to New York Christine stumbles across a church on a Sunday morning, slips in to hear the choir, and slips out again to call Marion. Interspersed with shots of both Marion and Lady Bird driving, it calls back to the opening, collapsing the time between. “Did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento?” she asks her mother over a voicemail. “I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened.” She speaks of this experience as though it is a long-distant memory (and in one sense it is), but it could only have been a few weeks ago. In terms of viewing minutes, Lady Bird only passed her driving test ten minutes earlier – the distance this memory is held at encourages us to read much of the film as a memory, as though Christine has been looking back at her senior year from a future vantage point all along. Lauren Oyler argues in The Baffler that Lady Bird, with its precocious lead and loving tone, is essentially regressive nostalgia for infantilised grown-ups, popular because it allows audiences to “rewrite their adolescences from adulthood”. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Christine has been doing this all along.

The longest scene, at nearly four minutes, comes in the middle of the film, when Lady Bird loses her virginity to the alternative, posturing, popular Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). It’s a disappointing experience for Lady Bird, and one that punctures some of her own fantasies – she spends much of the film before this point trying to insert herself amongst the cooler, more sophisticated crowd of Kyle and his friend Jenna, and the time after it turning back to the friends she almost left behind. It also represents a point at which the narrative accelerates. Oyler writes that “from here, the pace becomes curiously quick.” While the remaining scenes are of a broadly similar length to the preceding ones, Lady Bird’s remaining time at school, which contains several key milestones, does seem to fly by. Her prom, graduation, driving test, 18th birthday, and college acceptance letter arrive in five consecutive scenes that, together, span less than eight minutes. Her entire final summer at home is a blur that lasts less than ten minutes in total.

Oyler argues that this speed is to enable the film “to tie up loose ends”. But the exponential passage of time in Lady Bird speaks to a larger experience of adolescence. Being a teenager feels both impossibly permanent and terrifyingly transient – then, suddenly, it’s over before you can process it. Many of my adolescent experiences were characterised by the pre-empting of future nostalgia, experiencing a moment not in a state of blissful ignorance, but with the awareness that it was formative, that I would look back at it in years to come through a hazy yellow filter – even if, at the same time, I held a quiet, unreasonable belief that I would remain a teenager forever. In the production notes, Greta Gerwig calls this “the pre-sentiment of loss, of ‘lasts’”. She explains she wanted to achieve “that sense of time slipping away, the future charging into the present, the bonds of childhood as only living on in memory.” In the words of film critic Simran Hans, Lady Bird’s “joyful, forward-rushing narrative rhythm captures the feeling of adolescence ending before it has barely begun.”

All that said, it’s hard to watch Lady Bird and actually envy its protagonist. As much as her teenage years are sanctified, they are not airbrushed. “It’s not a highlight reel—the movie is full of embarrassment,” Collins writes. Embarrassment, anger, shame, anxiety – the intense pain and awkwardness of being an almost-adult forced to still live like a child, or a child pretending to live like an almost-adult, is plain. “Whenever I feel nostalgic,” Tavi Gevison writes in The Infinity Diaries, “I try to remember that what I really want is not to go back, but what I have now: the image, the memory.” Lady Bird doesn’t encourage us to long for our teenage years back, but it does encourage us to cherish our own memories, to frame them with ceremony, to feel our roots.

“I thought the best way to write a love letter,” Greta Gerwig says in the production notes of Lady Bird – a love letter to a place, and a time, and a way of being, “is to frame it with a character who doesn’t realise she loves it – until it’s in the rear view mirror.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship