Some things in British public life have got “metaphor” written all over them. Take for example the time when Jim Callaghan ordered himself two new prime ministerial cars, which he decided would be made by British Leyland. In buying British, he thought he was doing his bit for the country—if a set of British wheels was good enough for the prime minister, then it was good enough for anyone.
Then the cars arrived. Neither of them worked. Callaghan had them sent back to the factory. When they returned the PM went out for an inaugural ride. He tried to open one of the windows. It fell out into his lap.
As a metaphor for Britain’s 1970s decline it’s perfect, and captures the miasma of failure that had settled across Britain at the time. Inflation was at 16 per cent. Unemployment was rising. The unions were gearing up for the brutal fight with the government which would result in the Winter of Discontent. Like Neil Kinnock falling in the drink on Brighton beach, George W Bush inspecting the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from 30,000 feet, or Ed Miliband posing with his henge, Callaghan’s terrible new cars showed not only the haplessness of the man, but his detachment, absurdity and his loss of control.
The glaring political metaphor is so damaging because it commits the cardinal sin of revealing too much. Not only that, but the image that the metaphor creates gives a flash of insight which, once seen, is impossible to un-see. Worse still, once it’s out there, it can’t be counter-acted or debated or shut down because, well, how can you argue with an image? It’s a category error. Impossible. You can’t. It’s too late.
And now, the prime minister’s closing speech to conference has given us perhaps the stand-out political metaphor of our time. On the dais in Manchester, Theresa May delivered one of the worst speeches ever given in British public life. It was a disaster, a gut-wrenching mess, an hour of almost unbearable, unwatchable, tooth-pulling awfulness—it was nothing less than a complete and utter shit-show. No anxiety nightmare will ever come close to the pure weapons-grade hideousness of that speech. We will never see its like again. Not a chance.
"How can you argue with an image? It’s a category error. Impossible. You can’t. It’s too late."And after the “comedian” with his mock-P45, after the agonising, choking coughing fits during which she could barely speak, the throat sweets, the spilled drinking water, the letters falling from the slogan on the wall behind her and the idiotic chirpiness of her ministerial colleagues in their post-speech interviews, the symbolism of it all rang out like bells. This is Britain, it said. Welcome to the shambles.
May had tried to put grit and dependability centre stage. In the moments when she was able to speak, she assured the Conference crowd that, “It is our responsibility as a government to prepare for every eventuality. And let me reassure everyone in this hall—that is exactly what we are doing.”
“Oh no it isn’t,” the collective pantomime unconscious responded.
May’s speech is the perfect metaphor for our times. For all the nonsense about talking tough and hard bargaining, the country was shown as barely having a voice. Rather than serious leaders, we have a bunch of laughable participants in some low-rent comedy skit. They want to be taken seriously and claim they can build a better country. They can’t even build a working stage set.
It was hard not to feel sympathy for May. As she finished her speech, her lips were pursed and it was not clear whether she was holding back another coughing fit or some emotional outburst. When her husband ran onto the stage, the embrace he gave was not one of congratulation but of consolation.
None of which makes any difference. The failure of the prime minister’s speech is an irresistible metaphor for the much greater failure of our times. And like a good writer she didn’t say it. She showed it.