The Greasy Pole column from the July 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
We were told that Theresa May decided, flushed with optimism, to hold a general election on June 8 when she was hiking with her husband through Dolgellau, a small market town lying at the base of the Cader Idris range in Snowdonia. Dolgellau was once a woollen town but it was taken over by the automatic looms. Now it relies on tourists, who walk and climb or stay at the hotels there. When May was a small toddler a group of Socialist Party members climbed to the summit of Cader Idris, where one of them who was pregnant stood deeply awestruck by the view. That evening in the hotel there was a lot to be discussed – such as capitalism’s abuse of the world’s beauties, like the political conceits of the system’s rulers to the misery of its people. For May it is rather different now from her relaxed stroll through Dolgellau.
One who would have been particularly interested in that discussion was Ed Balls, whose book – Speaking Out – has recently been published. This is an account of his political experiences including a previous election when, according to Balls in an advisory mood: ‘What we badly need in Britain is a return to the sort of leadership exemplified by Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister and Gordon Brown as a Chancellor…’ without speculating on how this proposed combustible partnership might have operated. Speaking Out is about Balls’ time as an Oxford undergraduate, then as an economist at Harvard followed by the Financial Times and a place at the Treasury until with the election of the Labour Government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown a succession of ministerial posts preceded the defeat of that government and had him emerging as shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.
That was when he achieved a kind of notoriety appearing on the TV screens exchanging insults and indecipherable hand gestures with David Cameron during Prime Ministers Questions – which entailed the exposure of Cameron to lasting scorn among the fans by mistaking West Ham for Aston Villa. Those broadcast clashes earned Balls a reputation as a left-winger inspired by a passion to help establish a more equal society. Except that he denied this with his very own words: ‘But being Labour doesn’t mean that I can’t also believe in a market economy which creates wealth and good jobs . . . you couldn’t build a stronger economy on a fairer society through opposing business; it had to be a partnership between the dynamism of business and the helping hand of government. And my arrival from the Financial Times, the pink-papered global business newspaper, to work for Labour in 1994 was one symbol of that change they were pursuing’.
This was a preamble to Balls’ next, heavily publicised, ambitiously gratifying, personal appearance on TV when as the news came in late on polling day he picked over the tastier morsels with George Osborne. It was not comforting for Theresa May – but then how was Osborne to react when one of her first responses to becoming party leader was ruthlessly to eject him from being Chancellor of the Exchequer – even if he could then take his revenge as editor of the Evening Standard? And in any case May herself had never hesitated to make enemies. Apart from her infamously informing the Tories that they were better known as The Nasty Party there was the matter of her costly tastes in clothes, like a ‘Deliciously Soft Escada Cashmere Coat’ priced at £1950 and her revealing underwear such as headlined by the Express as ‘The Day Theresa May’s Boob-Busting Bra Sparked Twitter Meltdown’.
Walking that day with her husband through Dolgellau Theresa May could feel easy about fixing the date of the election. She had cleared a number of rivals out of the Party, leaving her supreme to assure the voters that she alone would ensure Strong Stable Government. She would see off Jean-Claude Juncker along with those other tiresome European mediocrities. The Tories were a long way ahead with every opinion poll, leaving Jeremy Corbyn behind in what seemed a swamp of defeat. But as the campaign got under way another, profoundly unsettling, picture emerged. And when it came to that fateful day Jeremy Corbyn was returned in his constituency with 73 per cent of the vote and the Labour Party gained 30 seats. After all those confident boasts May’s party did not have enough MPs to set up a government. There was plenty of advice and predictions. In the end she turned up with yet another surprise by announcing that, along with her guilt and despair about the outcome of her campaign she would ensure that at least she could be at the head of a government, even if it entailed being in alliance with the Democratic Unionists – Ian Paisley’s original sprouting in Northern Ireland.
The DUP was formed in 1971 and has survived during various disciplines of militarism known as The Troubles. It is now the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and its ten seats at Westminster make it the fifth largest in the Commons. But as it was typically known as ‘a coalition of crackpots’ it seemed unlikely that May would aggravate the chaos in her party by trying to survive as a government with their support. But that is what emerged from the chaos, with May as the titular leader of a minority government intended to operate on only ‘matters of mutual concern’, which left her enemies to speculate hopefully on exactly how it could fail. There is no lack of evidence that this will happen, if only in the recorded attitudes of the DUP leaders. One is in the Caleb Foundation opinion that the origins of the Earth – by god over six days – should be taught in schools. The party is hostile to LGBT groups and opposed to same sex marriage: ‘Peter will not marry Paul’. Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK where it is illegal to have an abortion, with a prison term of life for cases of drug-induced abortion. In December 2015 Arlene Foster became the party leader but in January 2017 she had to step down from the post of First Minister after presiding over a disastrous Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme costing the Budget some £400 million and ensuring that Theresa May’s effort to survive through an alliance with the DUP would look very unlikely. Which should divert us no more than on that long gone day on the Welsh mountain.