In Robert Graves’ Claudius the God, the emperor decides that Rome must get worse before it gets better. Caligula’s bloodthirsty reign, he says to himself, wasn’t too long. On the contrary, it wasn’t long enough to be followed by the return of the Republic, which Claudius himself yearns for. So Rome must prepare for Nero. He hammers out his thoughts in a kind of verse: he is “Old King Log”; Nero is “Young King Stork”. The final line is: “let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out”.
Since no young kings are available, Old Stork Corbyn addresses Labour’s conference today, where he will be greeted by the kind of reception that Seneca gave Nero when the latter indeed became emperor. (Graves usefully provides a version of the former’s “The Pumpkinification of Claudius” at the end of his novel. “The very sun is Nero and all Rome/Shall look on Nero with bedazzled eyes./His face a-shine with regal majesty./And lovelocks rippling on his shapely neck”.)
With Old Log May set to speak to the Conservatives’ own conference next week, this may be a good moment to ask if the Conservatives are having their own Claudius moment. Not to put too fine a point on it, is the mood of exhaustion and disillusion afoot, in the wake of the loss of Commons seats last June, so pronounced that many Tories would actually welcome a Corbyn win, so that the Party regains its energy and vitality in opposition before returning to office?
Perhaps the answer lies in finding some rough tests that can be applied in such circumstances.
Readers will disagree with these questions, or with the answers, or will have ideas of their own. And Brexit is the great exception to the norm which can turn the usual assumptions on their head.
Our snap judgement is party members are not fed up with office, and nor are most Conservative MPs, whose fear of an election is helping to keep May in office. Furthermore, over 40 per cent of voters banded together against Corbyn less than a year ago. Lovelocks do not ripple on his neck, shapely or otherwise. There is no appetite to hand Brexit to the most left-wing opposition since the 1980s.
But the warning signs are there. And as Mark Wallace’s series on the election’s campaigning failure confirmed, the party’s machine is badly rusted. We will see soon what recommendations the Pickles/Brady review contains, and what next week reveals about membership numbers in the wake of the election.
Those yearning for a cleansing spell in opposition may wish to turn to the final line in Graves’s book, which he adds as a sequel to Seneca’s poem: “the Republic was never restored”.