The National Theatre’s new production of Network – Lee Hall’s reworking of Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning 1976 film – is riveting not only because of Bryan Cranston’s extraordinary performance as Howard Beale, news anchorman turned raging prophet of the airwaves.
Four decades on from the original movie, its warning about the power of technology to weaponise populism seems more powerful and topical than ever.
For a start, Beale’s famous roar of fury – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” – feels uncomfortably close to the leave campaign’s pledge to “take back control”, or to Donald Trump’s empty promise to “make America great again”. Digital technology has proved an even more powerful engine of collectivised rage than television, and there is no shortage of demagogues longing to exploit the voters’ sense in 2017 that they have been stripped of basic human agency and dignity.
I wonder whether Theresa May and her colleagues understand any of this at all. Fossilised by their loss of authority, they reinforce the impression every day that the government is no more than a clique clinging on to office for its own sake, and that they, rather than we, are entitled to define the public interest.
With an astonishing disdain for democracy, they insist that their patriotic duty is to prevent a Jeremy Corbyn government at all costs – even if, to adapt the logic of the Vietnam war, they have to destroy trust in Westminster in order to save it. I can think of far worse things than a leftwing Labour victory that such oligarchic arrogance might eventually spawn.
The powerlessness of this administration takes the breath away. According to the Sunday Times, 40 Tory MPs have undertaken to sign a letter demanding that the prime minister face a confidence vote – only eight shy of the number required to trigger such a ballot.
Michael Fallon and Priti Patel have already been forced to leave the cabinet. In normal circumstances, Damian Green would have resigned too, pending the outcome of the Cabinet Office investigation into his affairs – confident that a strong PM would reinstate him quickly were he to be cleared.
But the prime minister is anything but strong. Which is why Boris Johnson – in spite of his shocking imperilment of the imprisoned Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – is routinely described as “unsackable”, and why the foreign secretary and Michael Gove, allies once again, feel able to warn May that she must force cabinet ministers into line over Brexit by “clarifying their minds” and “underlining your resolve”. Every word of their letter, leaked to the Mail on Sunday, bears the subtext: don’t forget who won the referendum, Mrs Majority-Loser.
In their desperation, May and her remaining supporters appeal in two interrelated arguments to the opportunities and constraints of time. First, they observe that no general election is required by law until 2022, and that there is, as a consequence, no pressure to go to the country, whatever the pressures of parliamentary arithmetic.
Second, May declares that the exact time and date of Britain’s departure from the EU must be enshrined in statute – 29 March 2019, at 11pm – as if to say that, as the clock ticks, there is no scope for procedural distractions or idle speculation about, say, her ability to govern the country.
Both claims are wrong. If the election of 2017 has one lesson, it is that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is a dead letter and that a prime minister can seek – or be forced into – an unscheduled general election at any time. As for the plea that it would be an act of grievous irresponsibility to interrupt the Brexit talks by going to the country, I do not recall May being troubled by such anxieties when she demanded a saboteur-proof mandate in April.
In any case: the turmoil into which the UK’s talks with Brussels have evidently descended is an argument for restraint, not haste. The intervention on Friday of Lord Kerr, who drafted article 50, is one that should be heeded by Brexiteers still hoping for a good deal, as well as by diehard remainers who long to prevent Britain’s departure.
Yes, Kerr spelled out the legal reality on the Today programme that “at any stage we can change our minds if we want to”. But his point was not only that Brexit could be stopped altogether. He also, quite rightly, reminded listeners that under section 3 of the article he wrote, there is explicit provision for the European council to extend the standard two-year negotiating period.
In other words: there is no intrinsic reason why a general election should not be held tomorrow, or at any other time. There is no jurisprudential barrier to a longer and more considered discussion of Britain’s future relationship with the EU.
The leave campaign encouraged the impression that the deal would be as easy as falling off a log and as cheap as chips, and its frontmen also claimed there would be a £350m per week dividend for the NHS. Let them handle the political fallout of the mess that is their legacy.
Some Tories understand the scale of the disaster the party is courting, not least in the battle of ideas. In his new book, Square Deal, MP Nick Boles channels Theodore Roosevelt with the premise that Tory policies must offer all voters fairness as well as freedom. In their “new generation” project, Lord Saatchi and Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee of backbenchers, hope to provide a forum for young talent in the party. Bright Blue (the thinktank which I chair) is an engine of new liberal centre-right proposals.
But this is the work of a decade at least. Bewitched by Brexit and paralysed by the election result, the Tory party has barely begun to address the new electoral landscape, its pathologies and its grievances. For now, the left controls much, if not most, of the ideological pitch, and the sooner all sane Conservatives acknowledge this, the better.
In truth, their worst enemy is not Corbyn, but the stultified inertia of their own government, and its leaden inability to see how unbelievably awful it is and how unsustainable its position has been since the exit poll on the night of 8 June.
“We’re here because we’re here” is not a credo for statesmanship but a message of disdain to a bewildered and angry electorate. Look out of the window, prime minister: they really are mad as hell.
• Matthew d’Ancona is a Guardian columnist
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