Sometimes, in my darker, weaker, lonelier moments, I feel sorry for May and the Tories. It must feel awful to be constantly mocked and scrutinised just because you called a vanity election, or jeered at by every TV audience just because the things you say are ridiculous, or accused of awful misdeeds just because you've committed them.
There's something inescapably teenage about all electoral politics. Most of us get to grow up and stop worrying about whether people really like us or if they're sniggering about us behind our backs, but politicians are stuck in a perpetual playground. The world is run on the stupidest procedure possible: ugly, mercurial, unlikeable people trying desperately to be liked. And the Tories are not liked. It can't be easy to have to contend with the constant feeling that you've failed; that feeling of a slippery world falling out of your hands, the vertigo of events suddenly running chaotically away from you. And already the Tories have crushingly, devastatingly, gloriously failed.
This isn't to say that the Tories won't win this election. Every poll still has them ahead, and the chances of an outright Labour victory are minuscule. But Theresa May didn't call this election just to win it. The plan was to create an invincible Tory giga-majority, to crush Labour forever, to impose an eternal one-party rule, to present the crowned heads of Europe with a Britain magnificently united behind the proud jutting stern of the Prime Minister's nose. It was meant to do nothing more than strengthen her hand so she could scoop up this whole island in one riveted claw and swallow it whole.
This is not what's going to happen. Whatever the final result is, the Tories have fucked up badly. And it's not even about the numbers (although they are significant – just five weeks ago, there were extravagant fantasies of a 200-seat lead; now, the same pollsters are predicting a hung parliament). There's more. The awful pallor that's washed over Theresa May, her eyes swerving desperately and her laughs ringing like a funeral march whenever she's asked about her unwillingness to take part in her own election. The panic in a campaign whose messages just don't seem to stick, relaunching itself just as it was supposed to be winding down to a close. The glee that surged after Jeremy Paxman told the Prime Minister to her face that she was a "blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire", the fact that all the party's best lines – strong and stable, coalition of chaos – have suddenly started inspiring derision whenever they're spoken aloud. They don't make sense any more. The narrative that sustained them, in which a Tory landslide was an inevitability, has dried up.
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Last night's seven-party debate, apparently held in a minor hall of Dis, the capital city of Hell, was a case in point. Most of the exchanges were stupid and unedifying, but in its better moments it was a spectacle of large-scale political bullying: six candidates roundly obliterating a Prime Minister who wouldn't even show up. The Tory campaign is based on May's personality, but May was not there; Amber Rudd was left praising the wonderful qualities of an absent leader and looking absolutely ridiculous in the process, full of the unseemly passion of a brainwashed cultist, feeling like a door-to-door evangelist for an absent god. Any other surrogate would have had the same fate.
This morning, the Daily Mail's front-page splash complained that the BBC audience, selected to be representative of the population at large, was clearly full of pinkos. "Fury," it announced – their own fury, mostly – "at bias on BBC TV debate." Why else would they have jeered when Rudd asked them to judge the government on its record, or cheered for Corbyn when he said things that actually made sense?
But if the Mail really wanted to see why this is happening, they should have looked closer to home. A media analysis from the University of Loughborough showed something surprising: while press coverage of the Labour party has been almost uniformly negative (with the exceptions of the Mirror and, to a much lesser extent, the Guardian), positive coverage of the Tories has been far more rare and more muted. Journalists can bash Corbyn, but even the most dedicated Tory hacks are struggling to come up with a positively articulated argument for the Conservatives. Nobody at the debate was clapping for the Tories – but then few people in the Mail's offices are doing it either. It's not that they're not good at their jobs. But there's nothing to work with. There's nothing there.
What's happened is that the Tories are running a post-political campaign, while the discourse of politics – which was supposed to have died some time in the 1990s – is back. This election was intended to be an administrative procedure – representation in Westminster would be brought in line with the opinion polls; it was basically just a matter of adjusting a few numbers in a table. It was not supposed to offer a choice between competing visions of society and its future, just May's stern competence and the mere anarchy of Labour. Ideally, there would be as low a turnout as possible, so it was scheduled to fall in the middle of exam season for first-time voters, and May made every effort to appear as bored by the whole thing as possible. Your votes are unimportant, you just have to be unexcited by the opposition, too. But the political – broadly defined, as the sphere in which human beings try to work out what our lives should be like and how we should relate to each other – has returned, and it's come in the form of Jeremy Corbyn.
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What Corbyn offers is something genuinely different. Labour's poll numbers are rising from a low base, but this surge happens to coincide with the party finally, grudgingly deciding to unify around its leader. A message like Corbyn's – diverse, prefigurative, offering a way out from all this petty shit – doesn't work so well when he has to delve into endless petty intra-party squabbles, but it's the only thing that can save Labour. Across Europe, social-democratic parties are collapsing. The French Socialist candidate took 6.4 percent of the vote in their presidential election, the Dutch Labour Party was on 5.7 percent, the German Social Democrats have been out of power for over a decade and poll ten points behind Merkel's Christian Democratic Union. It's impossible to imagine Yvette Cooper or Owen Smith changing this trend, because they're not political either. They play on May's terrain, offering slightly different faces and mildly tweaked skill-sets in a world that can never be changed.
Things can change. Theresa May might be about to find that out the hard way. Even if the Tories still win the election, without a massive increase in seats this whole charade will have been for nothing. And the Tories are not forgiving; already there are low rumblings, shock and anger at just how badly she's fucking this up. The 1922 Committee are not like normal human beings; they're an ant colony, or a nest of vipers. Furiously, terrifyingly united behind their leader – until that leader fails, and she's dragged down into the seething mass of bodies to be suddenly decapitated, and then they're furiously and terrifyingly united behind someone else. If May doesn't secure a landslide, she has to go. And if that happens, the Tories will have had three Prime Ministers in just over a year. At the very least, it should force them to shut up about being strong and stable, forever.