Dead woman talking

Brexit was the tragedy; Theresa May's flappings are the farce

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 18.11.17

Vladimir Putin must be quaking in his boots. Theresa May is threatening to expose him. Even while lurching from catastrophe to crisis, Britain's beleaguered prime minister took time off to pep up the online Cold War by wagging a finger at Russia's president. "We know what you are doing," she warned in the spinsterish tones of a schoolmistress who has caught out a small boy up to some naughtiness in a corner, "and you will not succeed!"

It's sad to have to record the palpable insecurity of a leader whose predecessors could send a gunboat to enforce their decisions. The Brexit referendum demolished a concept that could have provided a model of unity to a divided world. Time is running out to exit the European Union with profit and dignity but no one appears to know how to do so or where to go. She dare not sack or discipline a boisterous foreign secretary, dubbed "The Blond Beast of Brexit" by Heathcote Williams, the radical British author of the poem, "Badshah Khan", about Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Rebellious Tories might wipe out Mrs May's precarious majority. More and more women are popping out of the woodwork to accuse lecherous men in high positions of sexual misconduct.

Two of the prime minister's senior aides are under investigation. Two cabinet ministers have been sacked. Adapting Oscar Wilde, one might say to lose one minister may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer she didn't reappoint and who now edits the London Evening Standard, called her a "dead woman walking".

That brings us to the Achilles heel of Britain's Russian connection. Ignoring suspicions that Russian-bought advertising reached 126 million Americans in the run-up to the presidential poll, Donald Trump has exonerated Putin of trying to influence the election. He had to. Admitting that the Russians undermined Hillary Clinton's campaign would have meant he is in the White House courtesy the Kremlin. That's more than a populist, bursting with bombast, self-proclaimed leader of the "free world" can stomach. So the word must have gone out to the junior partner: slam the Russians as hard as you can. Mrs May is probably happy to oblige. It's a simple way of diverting attention from problems that threaten to overwhelm her while slapping down the oligarchs to whom she cannot but feel beholden.

It's impossible to measure the extent of Putin's influence in Britain. Soviet-born billionaires occupy three of the top five slots in the Sunday Times Rich List. Osborne's Evening Standard isn't the only Russian-owned newspaper. There's also the former morning daily, the Independent (whose title now sounds satirical), published online nowadays. Another oligarch owns Chelsea Football Club. More Russians are reported to have received special "tier one" investor visas than the citizens of any other country. Russia's central bank estimated that two-thirds of the $56 billion moved abroad in 2012 might have been the proceeds of crimes, bribes to State officials and tax fraud. English bankers and lawyers, British and Dutch tax havens in the Caribbean, estate agents in London's Mayfair, the French Cote d'Azur and Manhattan and British public schools help to launder the loot. Thomson Reuters estimates that companies from Russia and the former Soviet states have raised $82.6 billion in London in the past two decades, large chunks of which were gobbled up as the fees of British brokers who will naturally not spill the beans.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster forced BP (the London-based multinational formerly called British Petroleum) to freeze dividends and sell assets worth $38 billion, including half of all its offshore platforms and refineries, to meet the $42 billion cost of the clean-up after the spill. Russia adds nearly a million barrels a day to its oil production, and the company has become so dependent on Moscow's goodwill that the Economist once speculated that BP "now exerts pressure on the British government to pursue a Russia-friendly policy".

Hence Mrs May's vehement attack against her version of Indira Gandhi's "Foreign Hand". But she is neither Mrs Gandhi nor Britain's own Iron Lady, the late Margaret Thatcher. If those two were hawks, she is a hen. She gave the impression of a harassed and exasperated housewife who couldn't manage the servants or live within her income as she hurled accusations at Putin. His alleged crimes include meddling in elections, "weaponising information", hacking governments and "planting false stories and photo-shopped images".

That charge, highlighting the Age of the Social Media in which Facebook, Twitter and the like rule paramount, referred to the picture of a hijab-draped Muslim woman chatting nonchalantly on her mobile as she strolled past the bodies of victims of the Westminster Bridge attack when a British convert to Islam mowed down several pedestrians and stabbed a policeman before the police shot him dead. The photograph went viral on the internet, provoking a backlash of anger against Muslims. We have since been regaled with an anguished message purportedly issued by the woman in the picture strongly condemning those "who draw conclusions based on hate and xenophobia". Far from being indifferent to the carnage, she claims to have been "devastated" by it and was actually "assisting a lady along the way by helping her to get to Waterloo station".

She herself says nothing about the source of the propaganda that others have no qualms about blaming on the Kremlin. Their case is that far from being the handiwork of a transatlantic tourist who signed himself "Proud TEXAN and AMERICAN patriot", it was the mischief of a Russian agent bent on fomenting civil strife in Britain and driving a wedge between London and its West Asian friends. It's seen as part of a relentless campaign that began before the Brexit vote to stir up social and political unrest, weaken Britain and "sow discord" in the EU. If Anglo-American sources are to be believed, more than 1,50,000 accounts based in Russia, which had previously confined their posts to subjects such as the Ukrainian conflict, switched attention to Brexit in the days leading up to the vote. These sources accuse Russian Twitter accounts of posting more than 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours during the referendum. Russian activity is said to have spiked on voting day, and on June 24 when the result was announced. From posting fewer than 1,000 tweets a day before June 13, the accounts - many of which are passionately pro-Putin - soared to 39,000.

Non-British observers and perhaps even the more discerning British ones can't fail to spot the obvious weakness of this thesis. Sadly, Theresa May's Britain is just not important enough to merit such an elaborate propaganda exercise. A body blow to Germany or even France would have shattered the EU. But today's Britain? Mrs May flatters herself.

Even the haunting dirge of Alan Bennet's play, Forty Years On, no longer seems apposite. I recall the electric tension in a darkened London theatre as with the spotlight shining on him high up in the gods, the play's chorus intoned in pin-drop silence, "To let. A valuable site at the crossroads of the world. At present on offer to European clients. Outlying portions of the estate already disposed of to sitting tenants. Of some historical and period interest. Some alterations and improvements necessary." The sale isn't on. There are no bidders. Only migrants for whom life even in a Britain out of joint is preferable to existence in Syria or - dare one say it? - India.

As for Russian sabotage and subversion, this regurgitation of the forged Zinoviev letter scandal of 1924 is a reminder of Karl Marx's comment about history repeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce. Brexit was the tragedy. Theresa May's flutterings and flappings are the farce.