All the world’s a stage: this election has echoes of Shakespeare and Dickens

14 December 2019

9:00 AM

14 December 2019

9:00 AM

The Christmas election has unfolded like a series of mini-dramas from panto, Dickens and other popular classics.

Boris has come across as a Dick Whittington figure, already twice mayor of London, and hoping to establish his seat in the capital on a more permanent footing. Jeremy Corbyn resembles Mother Goose flinging sugary treats at gullible children. And Jo Swinson has clearly been reading Cinderella (and believing every word of it). Swinson positioned herself as the long-suffering drudge who must tidy away the mess left by the Ugly Sisters, namely the Tory and Labour parties. In the story, Cinderella ends up as a princess (‘I’m standing to be your next prime minister’). The snag is that elections rarely turn out like fairy tales.

Every good panto includes a bit of audience participation. And this year the TV interviewers have been clambering across the footlights a little too eagerly to outshine the politicians. Andrew Marr did his best to demolish Boris in a bad-tempered exchange during which, according to one calculation, Marr’s words occupied 43 per cent of the entire interview. Shortly afterwards, the Tories shot up to the same level in the polls.

Not every performer makes it through the auditions. Heidi Allen seemed ideal as the cross-dressing panto dame with an impressive range of costumes to choose from. She wore the blue rosette of the Tories, then adopted the weird zebra-striped banner of Change UK. After that she defected to the autumn gold of the Liberal Democrats. In the end she pulled out of the show altogether. Nerves, apparently.

No panto would be complete without a shadowy pimpernel invisible to the characters on stage. ‘He’s behind you!’ cry the audience. ‘Oh no he isn’t! ‘Oh yes he is.’ This year’s vanishing silhouette is played by Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Events elsewhere owe a large debt to Shakespeare. Nigel Farage mooches around like a Hamlet figure eternally deprived of the crown he considers his birthright. Tom Watson gave us a fair impersonation of Kent in King Lear when he banished himself from Corbyn’s court in Act One, Scene One. This left the Labour leader looking weak and uncertain, and exposed his creaking kingdom to the schemes of palace plotters. We can expect Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Rayner to take on the roles of Goneril and Regan in this unfolding drama.

Supporters of Sir Keir ‘blocked-nose’ Starmer are praying their idol will oust Corbyn with the ruthless despatch of Macbeth. Wrong play, however. Starmer is more like ‘the honourable Brutus’ in Julius Caesar. As Christmas approaches, Sir Keir and his team of strategists would do well to re-read Shakespeare’s text and find out how Brutus’s leadership bid ended.

Ian Blackford, the Beadle-shaped SNP leader in Westminster, looks like a figure from a Victorian morality tale about hypocrisy. Blackford froths and rants about ‘Tory austerity in Food Bank Britain’ but he shows little sign of having endured its privations personally. On the contrary, he seems to enjoy access to one of the best-stocked pantries in the country. How can he afford it?

The miserly wraith of Scrooge grows more powerful every year. We’d be wise to enjoy our Christmas trees while we still can. In 2020 Extinction Rebellion is likely to target the mass-murder of evergreen saplings in the name of a festival which is itself a byword for capitalist exploitation. So the commercial deforestation of trees may well be outlawed by next year. Every family will have to assemble a homemade festive bower out of foraged twigs decorated with clumps of moss.

And finally, let’s not forget the campaign’s defining image, a sickly infant bundled in coats on the floor of a failing hospital. The inspiration comes from Dickens. It’s Tiny Tim.

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