Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair: The Shakespearean Tragedy of British Politics

The return of The Satiric Verses sees Jacob Whitehead explore if Brexit is to be or not to be, if Andrea Leadsom doth protest too much, and if it is soon to be the winter of our discontent…


2016: a year of musical tragedy, turmoil, and commemorations. The tragic death of Prince, Bowie and political stability has been punctuated with historical anniversaries of great note, ranging from 100 years since the Somme to 40 years of punk music. Amongst all these, Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary is particularly notable. Critics celebrate how his plays remain relevant to this day, claiming his messages are equally applicable to modern issues, such as his controversial view of feminism in The Taming of the Shrew or the perceptive presentation of racism in The Merchant of Venice. It is equally striking that in the last week the actions of many politicians have taken particularly Shakespearean dimensions.

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(Photo: Filibuster UK)

Consider the tragic hero Boris Johnson, blessed with a God-given power that sets him apart from mere mortals (that blond thatch and affable bluster) which helped him to vanquish a long-held nemesis, David Cameron, before finally perishing as a consequence of his greatest victory.

Or is there a touch of the Henry V about Andrea Leadsom? A short-lived reign, defined by a great victory in a one-off battle, before ultimately proving unsuitable for home rule, and disappearing shortly thereafter?

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(Photo: Filibuster UK)

Moving on to the classics, Jeremy Corbyn as King Lear could be particularly apropos. The ageing, out-of-touch leader may be succeeded by three females: either the two daughters, Angela and Kezia who hate him, or the one, who loves him, the virtuous Diane. Sorry for reminding you of that mental image.

Ultimately however, the play I intend to put forward to the Globe is a story of an insatiable lust for power, a turbulent marriage, revenge, and naked ambition. Far from being Silvio Berlusconi’s autobiography, MacGove is an inherently British play, rooted in the Machiavellian machinations of the Tory leadership election. The scene is set, as Michael MacGove strides onto stage, accompanied by loyal ally Nick Boles, on his way back from war in the North over the EU referendum. During a (constitutional) storm, three ancient withered creatures appear, who he quickly recognises as members of the 1922 Committee. As one, they begin to chant, to the tune of the Eton school song:

“All hail MacGove, hail to thee, MP for Surrey Heath”

“All hail MacGove, hail to thee, lead negotiator in the upcoming EU negotiations”

“All hail MacGove, hail to thee, the next Prime Minister”

Instead of shock, MacGove’s first reaction to his impending success is a self-contented smirk, before quickly penning an email to his wife, Lady Vine, telling her of the news. Quickly she writes back, telling him,

“You MUST have SPECIFICS from Boris otherwise you MUST depose him. Do not concede any ground. Be your stubborn best. GOOD LUCK”.

The plan is set, with Boris due to visit Camberley to offer him the opportunity to be his right-hand man. Yet, overnight, as the city sleeps, provoked by Lady Vine, MacGove stabs Boris in the back, savaging his former friend’s credibility, and taking the Brexit candidate mantle for his own. Backed by loyal thanes Murdoch and Dacre, the Tories quickly find themselves with a newly dominant member.

MacGove in full regalia

MacGove in full regalia. (Photo: Getty)

Yet already the wheel of fire began to conspire against our hero’s hopes. Theresa May, playing the Macduff role, found her family, or rather lack of it, attacked by MacGove’s fellow Brexiter Leadsom, motivating her attempt to seize the leadership mantle. Lady Vine began to hallucinate, imagining her husband’s fateful backstabbing had not occurred, remarkably claiming in her Daily Mail column “I felt the agony of what the business of politics had done to the people at the heart of all of this: how old friends had been wrenched apart in the most brutal of ways.”

But MacGove still had the witches prophecy to cling to, a belief stronger than that of prisoner’s reading rights and the desire to remove speaking and listening from GCSE English exams (YES, I’M STILL BITTER). For the witches had given three conditions on which he’d remain leader, each seemingly impossible. First, that Jeremy Corbyn would step down after the resignation of every member of the shadow cabinet. Secondly, that Nigel Farage, fresh from his greatest triumph, would remain leader of UKIP. And finally, that England would beat Iceland in the Euros.

As England were unceremoniously removed quicker than David Cameron’s patio furniture, MacGove was still not worried. Surely, the other two conditions would not be realised. But as Corbyn resolutely held power, he began to sweat. Yet surely Nige wouldn’t cede. Not with speeches to make, an Australian style points system to implement, and the opportunity to take back control. Oh.

So the tale ends in Shakespearean tragedy for our hero MacGove. Rejected by his thanes in the party, beaten into third by Theresa May, and not even afforded the privilege of being on the ballot by Andrea Leadsom. A final indignity; his removal from the cabinet, the poetic justice of his fall not seen as enough evidence by May to keep him in his job. At least his enemies show him the courtesy of stabbing him in the front. As the final curtain falls, a tableau is formed, Michael Gove, on his knees, lamenting the death of neo-liberalism, cradling Lady Vine, recently fired from the Daily Mail due to the lack of news after immigration fears were assuaged.  The lights go black, the audience leaves the theatre, contemplating a cathartic purge not of the type Michael Gove intended.

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