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Theresa May's Nuclear 'Cover Up' Tells Us How to Break Her Brittle Facade

Does it really matter that Trident veered off in the wrong direction?
(Image: Public domain)

The whole point of having a nuclear deterrent is that you're never supposed to have to use it. If you did, it would hardly matter, since that would mean that the world was about to be destroyed anyway.

So in a sense, it's moot that our Trident systems may not be working. And icymi: our nukes don't work and the PM is accused by MPs of covering it up. According to the Sunday Times, a Trident missile veered off course during a test in June last year, weeks before Parliament voted to spend £40 billion renewing it. On Sunday, Theresa May was on the Andrew Marr Show, repeatedly refusing to answer whether she knew about it at the time and if she failed to tell Parliament as they debated it.


It's a cringeworthy watch. Marr asks May "Did you know?" four times. "I have absolute faith in our Trident Missiles… what we were talking about was whether or not we should renew our Trident," she said – patronisingly repeating the basic context in which every viewer understands the question is being asked, rather than answering it.

On one level it doesn't matter. The whole point of Trident is to merely look tough. If no one had ever found out about the malfunction, which occurred in June of last year, it would have made no real difference. In this sense, it is perhaps understandable why Theresa May (apparently also at the urging of the Americans) didn't bother to tell anyone.

But on the other hand, it absolutely does matter that our Trident systems may not in fact be working, if nothing else because they cost so much. If you're going to have a deterrent that doesn't work, just spend a few hundred quid on a big magic rock that you say can summon revenging angels, or something – don't waste big bucks on some junk, especially if it's likely to veer off in the wrong direction and destroy East Anglia (I mean, obviously in the situation where it gets used the destruction of East Anglia might be imminent regardless, but still).

May, for her part, doesn't give the impression of particularly caring about any of these annoying details. During the Andrew Marr interview she quickly reverts to stock answers about how she's very big and tough and patriotic, and Jeremy Corbyn doesn't care about defending the country. In truth, May seems not to care at all about what the missiles might ever actually do: for her, the appearance is everything.


This indicates a more general truth about May – something which as yet has been a strength, but as time goes by could prove to be her biggest weakness. May is almost exclusively concerned about appearances. Accordingly, she has come to power by constructing a narrative as effective as it is shallow: May is a "safe pair of hands", the only politician capable of clearing up the mess David Cameron left after the referendum; the modest vicar's daughter whose Christian faith informs a compassionate, one-nation policy platform aimed at salving the woes of the victims of globalisation; the "New Iron Lady" who can take on Brussels and win the Brexit deal that works. But of course none of this is actually true: the NHS crisis shows up May's administration as disastrously incompetent; her attitude to refugee children displays about as much Christian charity as Scrooge in a fedora reading a copy of The God Delusion; and her negotiating strategy over Brexit is both dangerously risky and – from the perspective of Brussels, at least – incredibly entitled.

When it comes to reality, May seems almost pathologically disinterested. By reality of course, I mean the hard material facty stuff that, in the science fiction writer Philip K Dick's expression, refuses to go away when you stop believing in it. If you're going to lie well, you need to pay at least some attention to how things actually are, and construct a narrative so convincing that anyone who points out that you're wrong can be ridiculed – maybe even persecuted.


May doesn't seem to be capable of doing anything like this. Her response to both the Trident and NHS stories has been characterised by the brittle insistence that she's right and everyone else is wrong, but she has proved unable to express this insistence in the form of an argument, even a bad one. Likewise, her Brexit speech from last week seemed to anticipate her inability to respond to any scrutiny she might face by describing any detailed criticism of her plans as "not in the national interest". This might have seemed, to May and her team, like a clever way of covering their backs, but actually it just tells us precisely what we need to do.

Riding higher and higher in the polls after her Brexit speech, May's reign can seem insurmountable. But her disinterest in reality leaves her so brittle that, with just a little bit more scrutiny, she could quite easily snap.


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