In Robert Graves’ Claudius the God, the emperor decides that Rome must get worse before it gets better. Caligula’s bloodthirsty reign, he says to himself, wasn’t too long. On the contrary, it wasn’t long enough to be followed by the return of the Republic, which Claudius himself yearns for. So Rome must prepare for Nero. He hammers out his thoughts in a kind of verse: he is “Old King Log”; Nero is “Young King Stork”. The final line is: “let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out”.
Since no young kings are available, Old Stork Corbyn addresses Labour’s conference today, where he will be greeted by the kind of reception that Seneca gave Nero when the latter indeed became emperor. (Graves usefully provides a version of the former’s “The Pumpkinification of Claudius” at the end of his novel. “The very sun is Nero and all Rome/Shall look on Nero with bedazzled eyes./His face a-shine with regal majesty./And lovelocks rippling on his shapely neck”.)
With Old Log May set to speak to the Conservatives’ own conference next week, this may be a good moment to ask if the Conservatives are having their own Claudius moment. Not to put too fine a point on it, is the mood of exhaustion and disillusion afoot, in the wake of the loss of Commons seats last June, so pronounced that many Tories would actually welcome a Corbyn win, so that the Party regains its energy and vitality in opposition before returning to office?
Perhaps the answer lies in finding some rough tests that can be applied in such circumstances.
- How long has the party concerned been in office? After all, the longer it governs, the more discredited it is likely to become. John Major just about won the Conservatives a fourth term. Gordon Brown could not repeat the achievement for Labour. On the one hand, the Tories will be fighting for a fourth term in government at the next election. On the other, two of those terms have come without a majority, and this year’s snap election has truncated one of the usual longer spells in government. The evidence is inconclusive.
- Is that party fundamentally divided? Last June, it lost a significant tranche of the younger, more diverse, urban voters that David Cameron kept or gained in 2015, performing especially poorly in London. It also won enough C1s and C2s to take some Midlands and Northern seats, though it lost more than it gained. Although the Party will have lost some support in bits of the City and business, and among some Remain voters, the Parliamentary Party has swung behind Brexit, at least to date. The answer is No.
- Have voters made up their minds about the party’s leader in an unfavourable way? The evidence is inconclusive – because one never knows what happens next – but the signs are not good.
- Is the party’s reputation for economic management wrecked? The election result combined the legacy of the crash with a recent squeeze on living standards. However, the economy is still growing (“despite Brexit”), and there has been no downturn. Furthermore, governments can survive recessions, as the Conservative governments of the 1980s did, and still win. Forty-two per cent of voters don’t line up behind a party in whose economic stewardship they have lost faith. The answer is No.
- Is the party’s project in government exhausted? It is undoubtedly in a bad place. To be blunt, no-one really knows what May now stands for, and she must provide an answer next week. But there are deeper issues. During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a clear sense of a case for free markets and individual freedom gaining ground. If anything, the tide is currently flowing the other way. Besides, the neo-liberals, Mayite interventionists, remaining Cameroons, social conservatives, and libertarians have not settled on a common programme. And reinventing oneself in government is hard. The answer is yes.
Readers will disagree with these questions, or with the answers, or will have ideas of their own. And Brexit is the great exception to the norm which can turn the usual assumptions on their head.
Our snap judgement is party members are not fed up with office, and nor are most Conservative MPs, whose fear of an election is helping to keep May in office. Furthermore, over 40 per cent of voters banded together against Corbyn less than a year ago. Lovelocks do not ripple on his neck, shapely or otherwise. There is no appetite to hand Brexit to the most left-wing opposition since the 1980s.
But the warning signs are there. And as Mark Wallace’s series on the election’s campaigning failure confirmed, the party’s machine is badly rusted. We will see soon what recommendations the Pickles/Brady review contains, and what next week reveals about membership numbers in the wake of the election.
Those yearning for a cleansing spell in opposition may wish to turn to the final line in Graves’s book, which he adds as a sequel to Seneca’s poem: “the Republic was never restored”.