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Why is Theresa May still Prime Minister?

Kit Knightly

Join me in a brief hypothetical. Imagine that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party had won the 2017 General Election.

Such a reality was within our grasp, after all. A few hundred votes here and there and we’re living under a Labour government. The specifics of the alternate universe don’t really matter – just that Jeremy Corbyn is Prime Minister.

In just the last few months Corbyn’s cabinet has been blighted by dozens of resignations, a UN report has condemned the UK’s growing poverty and described the government as being “in denial” about the problem, and his cabinet is the first in the history of the nation to be found in contempt of Parliament.

And then, on top of all that, two days ago, his proposed Brexit deal suffered the most lopsided, the most humiliating, Parliamentary defeat in nearly 100 years.

If all this had happened to a Jeremy Corbyn government, what would the national reaction be? More tellingly, what would the reaction of the press be?

How many newspapers would run front-page editorials calling for his resignation? I would suggest all of them. They would strike different tones, and they would support different replacements, but every paper would be repeating that old David Cameron line: “For Heaven’s sake man, go!”

In this hypothetical world…would Jeremy Corbyn still be Prime Minister?

No. He would not.

Of course – Jeremy Corbyn isn’t Prime Minister, Theresa May is. Still. Somehow.

And, of course, each of the above things happened to her and her government in the last six months.

Since the 2017 election, Theresa May has fielded thirty-two resignations – roughly one every 2 weeks, over 20 of them in the last six months. Her Home Secretary resigned in disgrace over her lying to Parliament…only to be re-appointed to the cabinet, in a different position, just 6 months later.

In November 2018 Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, released a report on poverty in the UK. The statistics are unpleasant reading:

14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line,and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%.

…but more telling are the parts that are directly critical of the government (my emphasis):

The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial. Even while devolved authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland are frantically trying to devise ways to ‘mitigate’, or in other words counteract, at least the worst features of the Government’s benefits policy, Ministers insisted to me that all is well and running according to plan.

The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately upon the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities. The changes to taxes and benefits since 2010 have been highly regressive, and the policies have taken the highest toll on those least able to bear it. The government says everyone’s hard work has paid off, but according to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, while the bottom 20% of earners will have lost on average 10% of their income by 2021/22 as a result of these changes, top earners have actually come out ahead.

Imagine a UNSR had written these words about a Labour government: Would they have been so buried? Would you be reading about them here? Or would they be splashed across the front pages of the Times, Telegraph, Mail and Sun?

On December 4th Theresa May’s government was found to be in contempt of parliament over its refusal to publish Brexit legal advice. To hammer home the impact of this: this is the first time, ever, that a sitting government has been found in contempt of parliament.

Imagine a Corbyn government had been the first EVER to be found in contempt of parliament. How long would you expect his career as Prime Minister to last? How many editorials calling for his head would there be?

And so we come to the Brexit deal vote of January 15th this year. A defeat margin of over 230 votes. The heaviest defeat of a government bill since the 1920s. The government bill wasn’t just “not passed”, it was cut into pieces, set on fire and buried in a pile of manure on unconsecrated ground. Theresa May’s “best possible deal” is dead. Gone. Finished. But Theresa May soldiers on.

Each of these failures is enough to bring down a government. Governments of the past have crashed and burned over far less. The famous incident, oft-cited the last few days, is Neville Chamberlain resigning as PM after winning a vote, because the 80 vote margin of victory was far less than his majority.

Theresa May’s government has a strong argument for being the worst in the history of our democracy. So why is it allowed to continue?

The Conservatives are hamstrung by the situation. They can’t replace May, because a new unelected PM justifies Labour’s calls for a general election. They have nailed their colours to mast on the Mary Rose. They have chosen their hill to die on, and it’s a heap of Theresa May’s failed deals, broken promises and resignation letters, strewn with the bodies of rejected benefit claimants. Their position, though contemptible, is understandable. They have no choice.

The media, however, are far worse. Disgusting, even. They are more than complicit in this, they are a vital component. A driving force. Their selective reporting hides the embarrassing incompetence of the cabinet. Where are the editorials calling for May’s resignation? Where the notionally “left wing” or “progressive” journalists demanding an immediate general election? They are nowhere to be seen. The media hold their fire whilst May stands out in the open with a target on her chest. A sitting duck. A very small barrel full of very large fish. She begs to be put out of her misery, but the media let her limp along.

Corbyn is right to refer the Conservative “zombie government”. It is dead. A construct. Propped up and posed by an establishment terrified of the only alternative. They have turned our politics into a farce. A cross between House of Cards and Weekend at Bernies. An embarrassment.

So I ask again: Why is Theresa May still Prime Minister?

The answer is simple: Because she has to be, because the only alternative is Jeremy Corbyn and the establishment has shown they will do anything and everything in their power to stop that from happening.