In European philosophies of kingship, legitimacy is usually premised on some combination of blood, faith and a nod to parliamentary acceptability. The Chinese see things differently. For Emperors of China, legitimacy comes from another source altogether. It doesn’t matter so much what blood you have in your veins (though those born into royalty obviously have an advantage when it comes to maneuvering their way to the top); religion is a different, less absolute creature in Chinese culture; parliaments never really took for the Chinese – then or now. No, for a Chinese Emperor, legitimacy comes from something that sounds vague but is actually deadly simple: The Mandate of Heaven.
Here’s how it works: if an Emperor is legitimate, if they have the Mandate of Heaven, then things will go well for them and for their subjects. Wars will be won. Crops will succeed. Drought will stay away. If things start to go wrong then the Mandate of Heaven has clearly been withdrawn. At that point, the pact that demanded absolute loyalty of subjects is rendered void. They have a right – a duty, even – to overthrow the Emperor and replace them with someone who better enjoys Heaven’s Mandate.
Prime Ministers are more Emperors of China than they are Kings or Queens in the European mold. In office, they enjoy ruthless control over their MPs, demanding absolute, public and sometimes craven loyalty. For as long as things are going well for them and for their party – elections won, legislation passed, poll ratings up – they are legitimate and their command is complete. But once the Mandate of Heaven begins to ebb away – elections not quite won, conference speeches from hell, runs of bad luck and poor polling – backbenchers begin to feel that they have a right, a duty even, to find someone else.
Theresa May’s Heavenly Mandate is as thin now as her electoral one. She is not responsible for the misbehaviour of Cabinet Ministers such as Michael Fallon; she is not responsible for lettering falling from her lectern or even – perhaps – completely culpable for her unexpected battering at the polls. But it is all mounting up, this bad luck, and for superstitious Westminster minds it is all adding up, too. The Empress has no clothes and no-where to hide, her time is almost up.
Michael Fallon’s resignation could have been a chance for May to gamble – double or quits – on a gambit to reclaim her mandate. Fallon is not the only member of May’s Cabinet now twitchy and nervous about revelations from the recent past. Decisive action could have cleared her the space to manoeuvre but – as ever, it seems – she dithered. Why not promote a woman – Esther McVey, Penny Mordaunt, Justine Greening – to the defence post? That would have made history and signalled that May was serious about forcing a change in culture. Why not take this chance for a broader reshuffle, moving some of her older and questionable team on, making space for younger replacements with more modern sensitivities and thereby at least buying some fresh loyalty from her restless backbenchers? Why not – at least – tell her ambitious Chief Whip that he was doing a grand job at the Whips Office, thank you very much, and she really rather needed him to keep doing a good job there, what with the lost majority and all the Brexit Bills and whatnot? Instead, May chose the path of least reward. She is maimed in her whips office, which will miss its cunning former Chief. In showing Fallon the door she has treated one symptom of the Westminster disease but has failed to take the full antibiotic course, leaving her vulnerable to further bouts. And she has enraged her parliamentary colleagues who now believe – rightly or wrongly – that one Rasputin has replaced another and that she is as dependent on Gavin Williamson as once she was accused of being on her Chiefs-of-Staff. The palace is consumed with bitterness and fear. The party faces electoral famine. Night after night, backbench troopers are whipped into surrender, told not to vote at all so that on issue after issue they lose little battles before war is even declared.
There, in Number 10’s forbidden city, she trembles. Surrounded by enemies, frozen by fear, everything runs away from her. Her courtiers plot and scheme – perhaps one of them might enjoy a Heavenly Mandate next? If the time and the omens are right. But if you listen closely you can hear on the wind the sound of a greater upheaval, a deeper change. The system shakes, a little. And Tory courtesans, mandarins and eunuchs alike remember, suddenly, the lesson of China with a shudder. Sometimes the Emperor is not replaced another Emperor. Sometimes the gates of the Forbidden City are flung, violently wide. Sometimes Heaven turns away from the imperium altogether. The Red Army is almost at the gates.