The Greeks had a perfect word for it – hubris, an overwhelming pride that leads to disaster. The gods simply did not like someone who pushed themselves beyond the natural boundaries of human existence. So Xerxes, the Persian king of kings, who invaded Greece in 480 BC with an enormous army was soon outwitted and his collapse at the hands of the small cities of Athens and Spartawas complete. His hubris had taken him beyond the permissable and the gods punished him for it.
Theresa May appears to be heading the same way and the collapse could be as total. There are many who are arguing that a vote for the Conservatives will allow her to be more flexible in the EU negotiations. Theresa May flexible? She is by nature a loner, far too dependent on unelected advisers such as Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy who appear to be in league with the Brexiteers on the right of her party. Every time she speaks it becomes clear that she has not the imagination or vision, or even language, that offers any kind of inspiration. This is not a mind that has the capacity tonavigate the tangled pathways through negotiation obstacles. Yet is such navigations that are the specialty of the EU negotiators whom she will soon meet. Ominously, this apparent intransigence is what gives her much of her popularity among voters.
It is said that an influx of new MPs will moderate the party. Yet, to further bypass local politics, candidates are to be imposed on constituencies by Central Office. Is there any sign that they will be moderates? Even if they were the Brexiteers are already well organised and will surely outmanoevre the scatteringof new members who may arrive as new boys, and possibly a few new girls, in Westminster in June. Would May be able to reorganise them as an effective force to stand up to the Brexiteers? Probably not as she cannot risk a renewed civil war within her own party just as negotiations are about to begin.
Her best method for keeping control will be the manifesto. Suffolk’s very own Ben Gummer, shown recently in the East Anglian Daily Times enthusiastically holding up his Remain poster – what a difference a year makes!- is apparently a key figure here (alongside the influential Nick Timothy). It will be impossible to stand as a Conservative without accepting it and any backsliders will be held to it when elected. So that will be how tightly centralised authority will be maintained. A big majority, of over a hundred, will also encourage an unhealthy triumphalism which will temporarily play in the PM’s hands. She will surely find it harder to resist the fantasies of her right wingers.
The key issue will be how much detailthemanifesto will give on the Brexit negotiations. It will surely have to flesh out the details to be at all credible. If not we really are surrendering our democracy even further than Parliament already has. History tells us always to be wary of those asking to be trusted with sweeping powers. Yet the more detail there is the more likely the negotiations are to run into trouble.
This is the fatal flaw in Theresa May’s opportunism. Without an election she could simply have continued with her vague promises ‘to get the best deal’. She now has to establish some clearer lines and that brings her up against the biggest problem of all. She may be lord of all she surveys in, well England, hardly the UK, after the election but she will always be an isolated and inexperienced figure in the negotiations to come. Her obsession with bringing migration down to the ‘tens of thousands’ has already narrowed the possibilities of an achievable deal. Sadly the clumsiness of her ministers, especially her Foreign Secretary, has already lost her much goodwill while the EU’s Guy Verhofstadt has said that a larger majority will give her no advantage. If she promises that she will remove the European Court of Justice from any authority in Britain and in response the European Parliament insists that it must be kept in place to police the rights of EU citizens where does that leave her? The chance of total humiliation- and the ensuing economic and political disaster of a ‘no deal’ - is very real.
If that happens the authority of May could collapse very quickly. An enlarged Conservative party might well split between the myopic Brexiteers and those MPs who know in their heart of heartsthat Brexit will seriously diminish the UK and leave it isolated and economically weak in an increasingly protectionist world economy. The decision to hold this election, even if it produces a larger Conservative Party, may well turn out to have been disastrous.
The Labour party has hopelessly compromised itself by giving Theresa May a free hand in the Brexit negotiations, not even challenging her sweeping away of the Parliament Act. It is unlikely that it will be able to offer a coherent alternative within this short time period, especially with a leader who fails to offer leadership. It is best that the party’s MPs concentrate on local issues and consolidate and defend their individual achievements. This leaves the Liberal Democrats as the standard bearers of opposition to the fantasies of the Brexiteers. Tim Farron, the Liberal Democratic leader, may still be little known but with a clear stance on Brexit and having ruled out a coalition he provides an alternative that is not only a vote against a hard Brexit but also a vote for the maintenance of democratic rule.
It is also vital to register the under 25sand inspire them to vote. It is they who stand most to lose from the restrictions on freedom to travel and work in the EU that may well follow a hard Brexit. The student unions need to get to work here. Every vote against the perilous direction in which the Conservative party is leading us is relevant in that it challenges an interpretation of the referendum vote that has little to do with reality.
Outsiders are amazed that the government shows no signs of understanding the complexities and apparently unresolvable issues that need to be sorted out in a very short time. How does a Prime Minister obsessed with migrationdeal with the 30,000 workers who daily cross either way over the Irish border with Northern Ireland? There will be no scope for grandstanding or intransigence. Yet we are still at the stage that May’s intransigence is being seen as a political virtue. The very ‘quality’ that makes her popular is the very one that is likely to bring her down.
There is one consolation. The defeat of Xerxes ushered in the achievements of classical civilization. The experience of Theresa May’s opportunism that may lead to her downfall could possible make people rethink the nature of British politics. This election will solve nothing, the many challenges within British society that the commitment to Brexit diverts us from will remain unmet. Perhaps ‘the will of the people’ will re-emerge to back policies that will actually improve the lives of the British people and those who from here and abroad who keep services running.
Charles Freeman is a historian specialising in the history and culture of Europe.