No sooner had 199 Tory MPs anointed Theresa May prime minister than the corporate media began, in typically unctuous fashion, to clot around her newly formed regime. On July 13, the Guardian gushed that May’s inaugural speech as PM was not just ‘radical’,1 but amounted to ‘one of the boldest statements of intent a Conservative prime minister may ever have made’.2 In a flight of fancy remarkable for its bizarreness, the same paper ventured to suggest that May would ‘feminise the topmost regions of politics in a way that has the potential to transform the conduct of government’.
The BBC meanwhile — refusing to be outdone — published a lengthy and largely sympathetic profile of the former home secretary, noting in it her ‘dependability’, ‘unflappability’, ‘shrewdness’ and ‘weight of experience’ — either side of the frivolous and by now obligatory reference to her taste in shoes.3
And the Financial Times, in a reflection of the credulity with which corporate journalists swallowed May’s bromides about ‘burning injustice’, sought to underscore the ‘altruism’ and ‘sense of social justice’ of a politician who voted for the bedroom tax and for cuts to tax credits, for a welfare cap and the trade union bill.4 (By contrast, when Jeremy Corbyn dares to rail against such injustice he is branded an extremist — perhaps because his utterances, being more than harmless Clintonian ‘public positions’, actually have the potential to galvanise the electorate against the elites which May’s party so assiduously serves.5)
Three and a half months later, much of the press remains fixed in its deferential stance towards May, even as her own backbenchers damningly accuse her of — among other things — running a ‘government with no policies’.6 Social, economic and constitutional crises — every one of them largely of the Tories’ making — continue to rage around us, but from their privileged positions inside the eye of the storm, liberal commentators see fit only to wax lyrical about the prime minister’s ‘sphinx-like opacity’7 and disgorge the most risible rubbish about her ‘kitten heels’.8 The ubiquity of such ‘analysis’ as this is disappointing in the extreme — and not just because it fails to see that May’s ‘opacity’ is in fact a deadly boringness which no measure of sartorial flair could ever hope to disguise or offset.
After all, the obsession with May’s personality serves to gloss over her record in government so far, which can fairly be said to consist of one calamity after another. Take for instance May’s approach to immigration whilst home secretary. On the one hand, she drew strong condemnation from the Upper Tribunal for wrongly deporting close to 50,000 international students in 2014; saw the High Court declare unlawful and ultra vires the process under which rejected asylum seekers are locked up and given just a week to appeal;9 failed to take seriously allegations of systematic racist and physical abuse by Serco staff of female detainees at Yarl’s Wood; nakedly stated that immigration makes it ‘impossible’ to build a ‘cohesive society’;10 and targeted undocumented immigrants by unleashing upon the streets of London vans daubed with the chilling ultimatum, ‘go home or face arrest’. On the other, having courted right-wing voters by claiming that ‘there is no case in the national interest for immigration of the scale we have experienced over the last decade’, May succeeded in overseeing a rise in net migration to heights unscaled even by her Labour predecessors.11
Such a blend of callousness, incompetence and duplicity has long since been par for the course for government ministers, particularly those of the Tory kind; perhaps it is this which explains why the BBC, in its foregoing profile of May, remarked that, qua home secretary, she had ‘master[ed] her brief’.12 (Other factors that Gavin Stamp may well have considered in reaching this conclusion are May’s well-documented keenness to scrap the Human Rights Act, and her delivery of a Snoopers’ Charter which, if enacted into law, would be the ‘most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West’.13)
At any rate, in light of the disastrous start to her premiership, there is no need for appraisals of May to dwell for too long on her time at the Home Office. Tedious Theresa’s missteps since ascending to Downing Street 100 days ago have spanned the gamut of policy areas, from the environment to health, from ‘defence’ to education. One of the very first, committed within hours of her becoming PM, was the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Now, it is self-evidently true that in an economic system whose workings are calibrated to the quarterly report and the four- or five-year electoral cycle, there is simply no room for the emergence of the long-term perspective required for decisive action against creeping environmental catastrophe. But in doing away with DECC, May baldly signalled her disregard for the gravity and magnitude of the threats arrayed before us. Under her watch, mere inertia on the issue of climate change has become regression, in much the same way as one imagines it would if Donald Trump were able to honour his promise to junk the Environmental Protection Agency.
Days after disbanding DECC, May bluntly declared, in a debate in the House of Commons and without the slightest pretence at hesitation, that she would be ‘personally prepared’ to ‘authorise a nuclear strike that could kill hundreds of thousands of men, women and children’.14 Since then she has further burnished her hawkish credentials (she voted for the war in Iraq as well as for military interventions in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria) by leading the successful charge to renew Britain’s nuclear weapons of mass destruction, at an estimated cost of more than £200bn. One wonders how fervidly she will join other leaders of Nato member states in provoking Vladimir Putin, and whether her response to the bloodbath in Syria will go beyond botched air strikes and a near-pitiless asylum policy.15 So too, it appears, do some of May’s senior colleagues.16
Great British democracy, wonderful though it is, must be suspended for six long weeks each year in order that our haggard public servants can recuperate from the cut and thrust of generously subsidised political life. Parliament’s summer recess stretches from late July to early September, and so August was as unblemished a month as May has enjoyed to date. But the prime minister returned from her amply photographed holiday in the Bernese Oberland — a little like Zarathustra descending from his hole in the mountains — overflowing with righteous wisdom. Hers consisted in a reactionary and rather monomaniacal determination to revive the corpse of grammar schools, but to the relief of many — including rebels in her own party — the leader of the opposition was able at Prime Minister’s Questions to dismantle May’s fantasies of expanding segregated education.
Not twenty-four hours before her comprehensive defeat by Corbyn on that issue, May had — in the words of Professor Steven Barnett — ‘effectively dismissed’ the chair of the BBC.17 That Rona Fairhead arrived at the Corporation by way of Morgan Stanley and British Aerospace is, alas, neither here nor there as far as her dismissal is concerned. Such an act of state interference in the media as the prime minister committed in removing Fairhead would have been roundly denounced for its totalitarian character — instead of rationalised or ignored — had it occurred in an Official Enemy State. Then again, why bother even to pretend to curry favour with the rabid liberals at the BBC when you can meet privately with the likes of Rupert Murdoch, as May did in New York in late September?
So far this month, May has managed to reaffirm her party’s commitment to the ‘standard technique of privatisation’ in respect of the NHS — defund until the point of collapse —18 and shown herself once again to be possessed of even less oratorical agility than Jeremy Corbyn, who took her to pieces last week on the government’s ongoing decimation of mental health services. But it is of course the spluttering fiasco that is Brexit which continues and will continue to define May’s time in office. The prime minister’s ham-fisted handling of the crisis began in July with her appointment of the ‘Three Brexiteers’. It appears all the worse for her failure to guarantee an unconditional right to remain to the millions of EU nationals already resident in the United Kingdom. And as impatience mounts among the public, her government’s entire strategy — indeed its cluelessness — still seems to be contained in the utterly empty phrase, ‘Brexit means Brexit’. All this led Tory grandee Ken Clarke to observe that ‘[n]obody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next’.19
And yet for the most part, May’s dire first months as PM seem to have passed by amid a ‘vacuum of press scrutiny’.20 Of course, the ideologically driven vendetta and eventual coup attempt against Corbyn are to some extent responsible. But these, clearly, cannot tell the whole story, for corporate journalists are now — at long last — starting bravely to blast even the Cameron regime (having produced nary a squeal of remonstration against it in the six full years of Tory rule that preceded Dodgy Dave’s resignation).
The herd behaviour of metropolitan hacks is also a factor in the unduly gentle treatment of May’s premiership up to now (not to mention in political reportage more generally; perceiving the fundamental uniformity of opinion which exists among members of the media class, one is unavoidably reminded of Glenn Greenwald’s claim that he has ‘never encountered any group more driven by group-think and rank-closing cohesion than British journalists’.21)
And perhaps above all else, there is a structural explanation for the obsequiousness of media outlets towards the government of the day, namely their reliance upon presumptively credible government sources for the ‘raw material of news’. Chomsky and Herman found as much in Manufacturing Consent, noting that ‘the mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest’.23 One effect of this at the micro-level is to ensure that journalists whose income, status, self-worth and sumptuous business lunches derive from their cultivation of the ‘right contacts’ become so close to power that they cannot seriously be trusted to expose it.
In any case, as far as media coverage of the last 100 days is concerned, the following conclusion is surely beyond dispute: large sections of the British press (to say nothing of the Labour Right) are guilty of both extreme cravenness and severe dereliction of duty in their failure to hold to account the most right-wing prime minister since Thatcher as she presides over a deeply riven Tory party and a country in the throes of its gravest constitutional crisis in more than a hundred years.
12. (n 3).
22. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (first published 1988, Pantheon 2002) 18.