With her tough talk on Brexit and cozying-up to Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May does not go out of her way to elicit sympathy from progressives. But following her disastrous speech to the Tory party conference in October, you couldn’t help but feel bad for her. A litany of mishaps left the few who could stick with it until the end watching through parted fingers.
First, a prankster who’d managed to inveigle his way into the conference center managed to interrupt May’s speech by presenting her personally with a P45—the government form that people are handed when they lose their job. Then the prime minister descended into a coughing fit that she just couldn’t shake. Finally, as May spluttered her way to the end of the speech, the letters on the board behind her started to fall off. When she’d started, the board read “Building a country that works for everyone.” By the time she finished, it read “Building a country that works or everyon.”
In the end, it was less a speech than an embarrassing surfeit of metaphors: a government that has ceased to make sense; a leader too enfeebled to get her message across; a performance so weak a heckler could steal the show. This government’s days are numbered. And while it’s not entirely clear what that number will be, it seems to get smaller and smaller with each passing day.
Still, while May could go at any moment, replacing her would not resolve the underlying crisis.
Having lost its majority following a snap election in June, the Conservative Party now limps from one self-inflicted disaster to the next. Ministers turn up to Brexit meetings without briefing papers or a clue, are laughed out of negotiations, and then come home with their tails between their legs, only to talk tough and hope nobody noticed. At home, inflation is set to reach a five-year high (in no small part thanks to Brexit) and growth has stalled, leaving much pain in the population and little room for maneuver in the polity.
All of this makes what was unthinkable just a few months ago now a distinct possibility: Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left leader of the Labour Party, could be the next prime minister. Labour now holds a three-point lead over the Conservatives, and Corbyn’s approval ratings are better than May’s. The September 23 cover of the libertarian Economist, no fan of the Labour leader, featured a cartoon of Corbyn coming out of 10 Downing Street with the headline The Likely Lad.
Given the immense effort it took to get to this stage, progressives should be delighted. But given the likely challenges of the next stage, that delight should, perhaps, be tempered with more levelheaded strategic thinking—the kind of thinking that could benefit from some input from the left in Greece and Brazil, who’ve been here before, and from the American left, who may get there yet.
The Labour manifesto was pretty much a boilerplate social-democratic program, calling for wealth distribution and increased public investment. Nonetheless, given the forces that made it possible, the prospect of a Corbyn government is bound to spark capital flight and a run on the pound. In 2015, the first time an anti-austerity government was elected, in Greece, capital (with the help of European Union hard-liners) effectively staged a coup—forcing the government to abandon its election promises and accept the agenda dictated to it.
In Brazil, more than a decade earlier, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won his first presidential election. In the three months between his victory and being sworn in, $6 billion in hot money left the country, the currency fell by 30 percent, and a few credit agencies gave Brazil the highest debt-risk rating. “We are in government but not in power,” said Frei Betto, a Dominican friar and close aide to da Silva. “Power today is global power, the power of the big companies, the power of financial capital.”
This distinction—between being in office and being in control—is a crucial one. The problem with neoliberal globalization isn’t simply that it heightens inequalities, but that it undermines democracy: While voters might choose their leader, international capital ultimately has to sign off on the program.
Shortly before May’s hopeless speech, I put this dilemma to Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, in a public interview. Some of his answers, before a supportive crowd of activists, seemed pat. “When Labour goes into government, we all go into government,” McDonnell said, referring to those in Manchester Cathedral who’d come to see him. At other times, he was more concrete, insisting that the party had “war-gamed” every possible scenario following an election. Business leaders, he argued, hoped a Labour government could bring an end to the instability and mayhem that had created so much uncertainty for investment under the Conservatives. While I understand what he was getting at, if the Dow Jones Industrial Average under Trump is anything to go by, it’s difficult to fathom that moneymakers would prefer a stable left government to a chaotic right-wing one.
By the end of the evening, I was not convinced that McDonnell had the answers, but I was satisfied at least that he had considered the questions. That may sound like cold comfort, but it’s better than no comfort at all. Six months ago, Labour were 21 points behind in the polls; now they’re a few gaffes and a snap election away from government. It’s a nice problem to have to worry about—but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.