Like a carnival in which the normal rules of propriety break down, so Conservative leadership contests lead to a collapse in the inhibitions which usually govern life at Westminster.
Everyone seems ready to talk to everyone else. There is no longer any of that respectful English hanging back, but an urge to communicate, to divulge whatever paltry secrets one has been able to gather, to question anyone on the slightest acquaintance about what is going on.
Theresa May’s going to win convincingly. It’s looking surprisingly tight. The ERG have been caught napping. Number Ten are trying to depress expectations so it will look as if she’s done a lot better than she has.
She’s only going to win because she’s said she’s going to go. She’ll be a lame duck. The ERG have blown it. You can’t trust a word anyone says. Isn’t it wonderful, she’s going to go next April. If it was up to me, she’d go on 1st April. I was going to vote for her until I heard her speak.
Even the Prime Minister has been affected by this breaking down of inhibitions. She is going round admitting how weak she is, and hoping this somehow makes her strong.
The joy of these contests is that for a few hours or days, no one knows what is going to happen. Hierarchies tremble, may be about to dissolve, and anything seems possible. Ambitions long repressed might be about to be fulfilled.
And old friends come into view. Here, as I walk from New Palace Yard to the encampment on College Green, is Tim Garton Ash, connoisseur of central European revolutions. He is studying with amusement a beautiful hand-made placard which says “Theresa’s Toxic Treachery”.
When accused of arriving in Westminster because a revolution has begun, he replies that if that is the case, it is still of the most velvet kind, with no sign of violence. But in most revolutions, there is a phase near the start when members of the Establishment believe that with a few adjustments, order can be maintained and the same old gang stay in charge.
Amid the dozens of gazebos from which dozens of broadcasters are addressing the world in dozens of different languages, putative guests parade up and down the central path, showing a bit of leg, touting for custom.
Here is Vince Cable, alone and palely loitering. This being an English festival, some of it has to take place outdoors, regardless of the weather, and this evening it is getting cold. Here is George Freeman, MP for Mid Norfolk, from whom we have been hearing quite a bit in recent days.
“Are you by any chance a Conservative MP?” a producer asks. Here at last is my chance to be a poor-man’s version of Freeman, representing some plausible tract of East Anglia, explaining to the nation the really very serious situation in which I would find myself were I to lose my seat at the next general election, given my evident unemployability in any capacity apart from legislator, and my consequent desire, leaving Brexit on one side for a moment, to see installed as Conservative leader whoever will save my seat.
“Bedlam down there,” a happy colleague says on returning from the Committee corridor, outside the room where the 1922 Committee has been receiving Theresa May. It is said that grown men have been reduced to tears by listening to her speech. We shall sketch the scene there after the result of the vote has been announced.