“Regardless of their doom, / The little victims play.” All eyes are on the impending fall of Theresa May, whose tragedy is hyperbolically termed “Shakespearean” by scribes who are yet to acquaint themselves with more than his titles. We are not looking at a Lear, or Othello, or Coriolanus. The failure of May is on a domestic scale, and it will be over very shortly. The waters will close over her head: she cannot even get an audience from her own party, as the empty green benches at Prime Minister’s Questions show. Afterwards she closed her office against Cabinet members wanting to enter, shoving her sofa against the door it was said. “Authority forgets a dying king” (Tennyson, of King Arthur). What matters is the European Union elections today, which by an irony the commentariat cannot forbear to term “tragic,” will include the UK. It is only through the incompetence of Theresa May that Britain is still in the EU, instead of leaving on March 29th as she had promised. The UK presence in today’s elections, and its outcome, has all the inevitability of Greek comedy.
Let us leave Theresa May to her melancholy fate. She is now irrelevant. What matters is the outcome, by numbers, of the EU elections. The full details will not be known till Sunday, but the polls cannot be wrong on the magnitude of the defeat looming for the Conservative Party. One late poll puts their support at 7%, and this is the party of government. The unchallenged victor will be Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party. He is a politician of genius, and his UKIP Party frightened David Cameron into a referendum on EU membership. Cameron was smart enough to promise a referendum, and fool enough to deliver it. He resigned on the morning of the result.
So Farage has to be taken with the utmost seriousness. His immediate aim is to score heavily in the EU elections; he is already an M.E.P. and will simply resume his seat in Brussels. But that is peripheral. His Brexit Party will establish a bridgehead in British politics, which he can widen out into Westminster. Fate has given him another opening: a Labour MP, jailed for perverting the course of justice over a driving offense, has been forced from office. The by-election will take place on June 6th. The constituency is Peterborough, which voted heavily Leave in 2016 and narrowly Labour in the 2017 general election. If Brexit wins, this new-fledged party will have a seat in the Commons. And it will announce a presence in national politics with which the leader of the Conservative party will have to treat.
Meantime, we can spare a glance at the final throes of the May Government. She is resisting defeat, as I write, holed up in her Downing Street castle. A genuine Shakespearean line applies: it is Macbeth’s.
“Hang out our banners on the outward walls.
The cry is still ‘They come!’”
As it happened, Birnam Woods really did come to Dunsinane.
Ralph Berry writes from England.