After an election with a weak showing from Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, the Tories form a minority government with support from, among others, 9 UKIP MPs.
At this point, David Cameron feels like he’s got away with it. Over the next few weeks he will make several serious misjudgements – Russell Brand’s potency being the biggest.
On the Friday after the election an arrangement is reached where UKIP will support important government bills such as the budget and prevent a vote of no confidence. Further details are to be announced later, but Cameron recommits to an EU referendum before the next election, and to continued austerity, while Farage, standing on the bar of a Wetherspoons, gives breathless speech about how close the UK is to escaping the yoke of the EU.
Russell Brand, in a NewsNight interview that same evening, calls the government illegitimate: with a turnout of 55%, the lowest ever, the minority government has the support of less than 20% of voters. Even lower youth turnout means that the government has almost no supporters under the age of 50. Brand called the government a gerriocracy (‘you’ll like that Jeremy, it’s that latin, did it just for you!’), and says today is the day the revolution starts, pumping his fist in the air. Jeremy Paxman looks on with barely concealed excitement.
Videos of his performance go viral, everyone has seen them. All the usual suspects on Twitter – Ricky Gervais, Frankie Boyle, Graham Linehan – circulate the video and add their support, but critically so do footballers and other sports stars, propelling the video to an audience that barely ever comes into contact with politics.
Brand has a point, academics, politicians, celebrity talking heads all agree: how has such a tiny fraction of the vote allowed the Conservatives to form a government? On Saturday protest groups demonstrate all over London, including an unplanned attempt occupy Trafalgar Square.
Many of Trafalgar Square’ special bye-laws – design to limit protest – are violated, and the police move in. In ensuing scuffles six people are hospitalised by the police, including two teenage girls, who give defiant interviews from hospital; the police are left looking heavy handed.
Throughout the week after the election protest spreads across Northern cities and Wales, which have almost uniformly voted against the Conservatives. In Scotland, the SNP mobilises the machinery of the independence referendum. Nationalist sentiment surges, as Scotland contemplates not only another 5 years of (foreign) Tory rule, but also the possibility of being forced out Europe by UKIP’s little Englander mentality.
By the Thursday, exactly one week after the election, it’s clear that the energy in the protest movement isn’t dying away. Further details of the new government are announced. In a crucial slip up, questions about funding of the NHS a left open, and the press and opposition parties begin to whip up fears that the it will be defunded or privatised.
Cameron makes a speech about the need for stability, maturity, fiscal restraint and the rule of law, casting himself in the same mold as Thatcher – on the side of vibrant, pragmatic, capitalism and against rabble-rousing populists who would subvert democracy and destabilise the country, leaving everyone impoverished.
But Lefty newspapers talk of shady backroom deals and a widespread impression begins to form that the Tory government has been deceitful in its UKIP pact – despite the fact that they have behaved exactly in line with constitutional precedent.
Right-wing papers buy into the Cameron rhetoric and point at Greece as an illustration of civil unrest resulting economic ruin.
All the papers carry opinion polls confirming that the UKIP-Tory government is massively unpopular, not to be trusted with the NHS, and perceived as certain to lower living standards with it’s plans for continued austerity. Many Conservative voters have changed their minds.
Friday, in Brixton. Marchers attempt to occupy the town square, while the police attempt to prevent the occupation. As the marchers and the police clash, there is a small scale repeat of the 2011 riots, far away from the main protest in the back streets, a car is set on fire, two shops are looted and gangs of youths give the impression of lawlessness. Cameron takes to the TV, attempting to connect all protests with the ‘rioting’ thereby undermining them.
The real impact of his intervention is to draw disproportionate attention to an almost trivial number of incidents. In contrast to the 2011 riots, many people see the looting as a sign of despair and a symptom of a failing country, and blame the government.
On the Saturday night, the media waits to see if the rioting will spiral out of control as it did in 2011, building the tension as high as it can for dramatic effect. Inevitably, rioting explodes across many cities. But this time, the police are already committed to monitoring Occupy camps in most major cities, as well as marshalling multiple marches during the day. As night draws in, the police are simply unable to cope with rolling acts of looting, vandalism and arson. While they maintain a presence in key locations, they cannot deploy enough officers to police large areas of the capital.
Privately, senior police officers send David Cameron a warning. Having already been committed across the country for over a week, and with all leave cancelled indefinitely, the police are stretched to the limit. Unlike the 2011 riots, where police could be redeployed into London from other locations, this time there is no spare capacity. And legitimate, legal protests and marches are also adding to the police’s workload. The message is blunt: the police will not be able to hold the line if anything like the 2011 riots occur.
The media speculate along similar lines. They notice that in the last riots police made pledges to subsequently prosecute using CCTV, even if they could not control the rioting as it happened. This time there is no such threat. Low police moral is a mainstay of 24 hours news (which has suddenly has enough material). Talk turns to the deployment of the army.
Cameron says that all options are on the table to maintain law and order. However, senior army officials give briefings: having been deployed on ‘training’ missions in Libya since January, with the cuts, Afghanistan and Iraq, the army simply could not be deployed in large numbers.
Cameron realises that if he is forced into another election in the short term the Tories will be destroyed. Opinion polls show they are suffering badly from a perception of backroom dealing with UKIP, and bringing the country to a point where the riots could happen. Suddenly, the economic recovery looks less and less convincing, the country seems ever more like Spain, Portugal or Greece.
The party as a whole is terrified, fearing actual extinction if they are forced to go to the polls again. A labour victory is inevitable. The Conservatives would not have won an election outright in 18 years, and UKIP are breathing down their necks. Cameron sees his only way out is to stick to his guns as a symbol of continuity and stability, as well as reinforcing the democratic legitimacy of his government.
Meanwhile Ed Miliband has resigned, Chuka Umunna is the new Labour leader. He looks unstoppable, dismembering Tory policy with relish.
Next weekend if forecast to be hot and dry, and it’s a bank holiday. Papers scream that future of country hangs in the balance. Russell Brand, Chuka Umunna and Stephen Fry will speak in Hyde Park.
On Thursday and Friday, having satisfied the legal requirements, a number of Trade Unions go on strike, causing massive public transport disruption. Without tube and bus, and with continued low-level rioting, there is a knife-edge atmosphere in London. Parliament Square has been successfully occupied, a symbol of defiance against the police, and the TV news is filled with pictures of makeshift camps in city centres.
On the Saturday of the bank holiday, the day of Russell Brand’s rally, Cameron has a plan to start making the weather himself. In the morning he has a call with Barack Obama about the ongoing deployment of American and British troops to Libya, and he will then go to the BBC to appear on a special lunchtime version of the Andrew Marr show.
Fate is against him and Obama cancels the call so he can go to a basketball game. The Cameron team literally beg, describing refusal to speak with the Prime Minister as ‘regime change’. Obama gives in, but will only speak with Cameron later than planned. The new timings mean he will have to appear on the Marr show via a video link from Number 10.
Andrew Marr’s first question to the Prime Minister is about the protests, Cameron replies that he’ll be happy to talk about the protests later, but that other important issues are his primary concern. He goes on to recount his call with Obama, praising the bravery of the troops in Libya and commending them for recent victories – carefully playing the statesman.
The interview is PR disaster, making Cameron look out of touch, almost deluded, about what’s going on around him. News of Obama’s snub swirls around Twitter, undermining him further.
At exactly the same time, Stephen Fry is addressing the crowd in Hyde Park, telling an anecdote about how nice the Queen is. He’s walking a careful line, inciting the crowd to be open to radical political change, but also imploring them to see the value of being British and not to do anything rash – British people, Fry says, are never rash.
Russell Brand comes onto the stage, and asks Fry about the possibility of a backdoor knighthood (“You should never take it via the backdoor!” quips Fry). Brand has almost no idea of what he will say. Impromptu, he turns over the sheet of notes he his carrying, and says “I’ve got a message for the Prime Minister, it’s time to go!” He writes something on the paper, folds it up, places it the top pocket of the frayed jerkin he’s wearing, tapping it twice. Then he shouts “Hand deliver me to Number 10! Follow me!” and launches himself into the throng, who crowd surf him to the back.
Chuka Umunna watches the crowd disappear. He will not get to speak.
Cameron is in talks with his advisors, who are advising him that the interview was a disaster, with the news on in the background. Sky News’s Skycopter shows a stream of people marching towards Hyde Park Corner. “What’s going on?” asks Lynton Crosby. Someone who’s been watching explains. The room realises that in approximately 30 minutes the crowd of 200,000 will arrive at Downing Street.
“Is it secure? Crosby asks a Diplomatic Protection Officer. “It’s secure, but if the PM doesn’t leave soon it may become very hard for him to leave without using the helicopter.” They all realise that the image of Cameron helicoptered from the rooftops of Whitehall is not a good one.
After 10 minutes agreement is reached: there is now no choice but to make major concessions, and limit the current government to a year, leaving the Europe referendum to the next government. The announcement will be made from Cameron’s Oxfordshire home. It’s not possible to get press into Number 10, and background protest noise may be audible if he stands outside the front door as he normally does for announcements.
A single, unmarked car containing the PM leaves Downing Street, turns up Whitehall towards Trafalgar square. A suit hangs in the nearside rear window to conceal the passengers. Progress is slow, news of the Brand march has spread and most people in the Occupy camps in both Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square are trying to see what’s happening.
By the time they get to Admiralty Arch, the protection officers in the car with the Prime Minister make the call that the journey is not safe, and tell the Cameron they can no longer guarantee his security unless he returns to Downing Street. Cameron confers with Crosby who confirms they can make the announcement from the press room in Number 10, they turn left, under the arch and slowly across Horse Guards Parade and back to the other end of Downing Street.
What they don’t realise is that they are actually moving through the crowd which has Brand at it’s centre, waving his letter. The protection officers in Downing Street do, and send out armed police to meet the vehicle, fearing that the protesters may realise that the Prime Minister is in the car.
The car speeds up, nudging people out of the way, and causing a huge commotion. The crowd responds becoming increasingly interested, drawing Brand and the center of the procession towards it. At this point, the two armed protection officers bundle Cameron out of the car and run him towards the safety of the officers coming out to meet them.
Brand and the rest realise, and give chase, although Cameron is well clear of the protest and back inside Downing street’s gates in plenty of time.
Then Cameron realises, the whole thing will have caught by the Skycopter, and is probably live on TV. Him, being dragged behind armed officers while chased by a comedian. Worse, he’s back in Downing Street, without an easy means of getting away, with the world camped outside waiting for him to come outside and receive the letter.
Before he gets back to the door of Number 10, he makes a bold decision. He turns round, and walks calmly back towards the crowd. He waves for the police on the gate to let him though and waves for Brand to come to him. The cameras that have been following Brand form an arc, providing space for Brand to hand the letter to Cameron with a theatrical flourish.
Cameron waves the folded letter, and starts “In a democracy…“, only to be shouted down almost immediately. “In a democracy… “ he begins again, and this time someone squirts him with water from a bottle of Evian. Brand says “Sorry Dave, I don’t think they like you very much”, brand winks a the cameras to a huge cheer. The gates open a crack and Cameron slides back in to Downing Street.
Inside Number 10, he slaps that note down on the table, and asks that arrangements be made for him to phone the queen and tender his resignation. Lynton picks up the note, and reads allowed:
“I’ve shagged Samantha.”