"In office but not in power." That came from Norman Lamont in his resignation speech, on John Major's hapless Government. The line is famous but misleading, for the implication is that what matters is power, and office is mere trappings. It is not so. For all European nations, political power is a chimera. The leader has power to move the furniture around—personnel, projects—but little more. Macron cannot resolve the problem of the 5 million Muslims embedded in France, who are engaged on a fast breeder experiment. The Germans are stuck with the fatuous decision of Angela Merkel to invite the Third World to its shores. Britain cannot resolve the ever-growing problems of London—crime, illegal immigration, deepening pressure on schooling and housing.
All these countries are structurally welded to the status quo, and none has the power and will to break free. Power is the illusion; office, which is continuous and deeply pleasing to the holder, is the reality.
Consider Theresa May. She is widely considered a failure: two thirds of the public think she has handled Brexit badly. The political editor of the Sun (the most influential British tabloid) said last week on TV that her party is planning to "defenestrate her" (his words). And yet she enjoys a gilded life. She was seen on TV at the Festspielhaus, Salzburg, where the Viennese hochgeborene foregather, a brilliant assembly. (I was there some years ago, and remember seeing Lilly Palmer with her new husband.) She accepted Macron’s invitation to visit him at Fort Bregancon, the island-fortress near Toulon that is the holiday resort of the President. She was very well received—the President's cellar will be memorable—and M. Macron was sympathetic to her pleas for France's support. She won't get it, of course; France and Germany see no reason why they should invest in a loser. But the experience is worth having—it will merit a place in her memoirs—and in itself fully compensates May for the loss of power that now looms.
Add this latest item to the life led by a Prime Minister. None of the trials the rest of us undergo is hers. A devoted team exists to smooth away all problems. Travel is a dream, food a finger-click, telephoning an answer to someone who is already waiting. It will all end when office goes. Power, bah.
Ralph Berry writes from England.