Thatcher was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. She had worn the EU-flag jumper. She had negotiated the rebate. She had made the speech in Bruges. But she had been dead for years now.
Theresa May had taken over the firm they ran. Because they were both members of the fairer sex — as those of the Rees-Moggian persuasion are wont to say — people often confused the two. Hard and sharp as flint, they wore suits and pearls, ran the business coldly and efficiently, and counted every last penny. External heat and cold had little influence on May. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill her. Late at night, bypassers peeping through the windows of 10 Downing Street would see her, counting pennies by a meager fire. “Strong and stable,” she would say as she put another mark in the column. “Strong and stable.”
Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve — May sat busy in Westminster. It was as foggy as the Channel on March 29. “Brexit means Brexit,” muttered May, as she poked the last lump of coal in the fire.
“A merry Brexit, aunty!” cried a cheerful voice. It was her niece, Anna Soubry, running in from the House of Commons where she’d been expressing her rebellious streak. “Season’s Greetings to us all!”
Fans before the Carabao Cup match between Chelsea and AFC Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge on December 20 | Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
“Bah!” said May. “Humbug!”
“Brexit, a humbug, auntie?” said Soubry, her eyes full of festive cheer. “You don’t mean that, I’m sure!”
“I most certainly do,” intoned May. “I have had to hand over billions to those ungrateful cousins from Northern Ireland! What’s Brexit-time but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself taking back control, to find out you’ve had it all along; a time for realizing every fool had a different muddle-headed idea of what the damn thing meant in the first place, and there’s no way to please half of them, let alone the other 48 percent?”
“Don’t be cross, aunty!” pleaded the niece. “It’s not too late to do the right thing!” she continued. “Explain to people it’s all been a terrible mistake and come to ours for a gigantic turkey with all the continental meats!”
May harrumphed and shooed her out of the office. “You keep Brexit in your way, and I’ll keep it in mine!” she said, slamming the door.
A man carries a recently purchased Christmas tree through Brockwell Park in London | Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Phase 1: Thatcher’s Ghost
But the clerk, in letting May’s niece out, had let two other people in. They were two gentlemen, one of them twinkly-eyed and bearded, and sporting a fisherman’s cap, the other one, taller and with prominent ears. They carried an array of homemade jams, radical literature and collection boxes.
“At this festive season of the year, Ms. May,” said the white-haired gentleman, shaking his box, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, ma’am.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked May.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, as his associate began filming him on his telephonic device.
“And the Universal Credit?” demanded May. “Is that not in operation?”
“Well, as much as it has ever been,” returned the gentleman, “It is a disaster, and you know full well the welfare state was not created to subsidize low-paying employers and overcharging landlords.”
“The food banks are in full vigor, then?” said May.
“All very busy! Far too busy. This country is in a terrible state! A few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose Brexit-time, because it is a time when Want is keenly felt. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” May replied.
Choristers sing during a rehearsal for their upcoming Christmas performances, at St Paul’s Cathedral in centra London | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
The two gentlemen looked at each other, startled. The taller one stopped filming, and sent the short recording into the electronic ether. “JEREMY CORBYN DROPPED THIS TRUTH BOMB ON MAY … AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT,” he typed, his thumbs fair flying over the touchscreen. The gentlemen withdrew, and May resumed her labors.
What a foul mood she was in that afternoon! She strolled through Westminster and reprimanded Davis, the laziest clerk in the firm, for not having done the 57 ledgers he had promised. When she looked through the file, it was nothing but a dog-eared collection of yellowing papers from the most disreputable think tanks, penny-dreadful hot takes from the worst hack writers, and much of his work was plagiarized or simply unfinished.
She went to the government departments and told them they should have no break until they worked out a Brexit plan that keeps everyone happy: the Norway-minus faction, the Canada plus-plus-plus’ers, old man Clarke, the Empire 2.0 buccaneers, the Brexinos, the populists, the Lexiteers, the WTO hopefuls, the sunlit uplanders, the Singapore-on-Thames crowd — and the Remoaners, too, for it was a time of goodwill to all men.
Finally, she arrived back at Downing Street. “Humbug!” said May as she settled into her favorite chair. “A pox on Brexit!”
But sipping a glass of port, she became aware of a cold chill coming from the fireplace, despite the roaring coals. A low moan issued from the chimney, then grew louder and louder. The window panes shook. And then, emerging from the fireplace, Mrs. Thatcher appeared. Thatcher, with her blue suit, pussycat bow, and sturdily-lacquered hair. “No, no, no!” she intoned as she patted herself down from the flames. “The lady’s not for burning!”
The annual Santa Dash run on Clapham Common | Jack Taylor/Getty Images
“How now!” said May, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”
“Listen, Theresa,” the spirit began. “Brexit is a shambles. The party is all over the place. You need some discipline!”
May shivered. The stentorian voice hadn’t changed one jot. The whole situation seemed unbelievable, the very opposite of strong and stable, as much of a waking nightmare as when the letters had started falling off the backdrop when she was making her conference speech. The specter fixed her with an iron glare.
“Disciplining yourself to do what you know is right and important, although difficult, is the high road to pride, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction,” said the ghost. “Over the next three days, when the division bell rings, you will be visited by three spirits who will show you how to escape this dreadful mess. Think, girl, think!”
And with a sudden rush of air, Thatcher’s revenant spirit was gone. May stood alone in the drawing room, chilled to the bone. Peering up the chimney, she saw there was nothing there. She went straight to bed and fell into the deepest sleep.
Phase 2: The First of the Three Spirits
The ringing of the division bell echoed through the Houses of Parliament. In her office, May gripped her pen and eyed the door, steeling herself for the imminent visit from the other side — this time not the leader of the opposition. She glanced nervously at the windows. As the bell rang, a grey fog began to rise from the join between the floor and the wall. Greyer and greyer, the mist began to gather in the middle of the room, swirling around like a weir until it took form.
“Bastards!” proclaimed the semi-corporeal gray mass. “Sorry, language,” the spirit apologized as it straightened its grey suit. “May, I’ve come to talk to you about the situation in Europe,” it declared in a nasal monotone. “I am the ghost of Brexit past.”
May held her face in her hands, half chuckling, half sobbing at her desk. “Major,” she whispered to herself. “Why is it Major? This is the worst year ever. Donald Trump, and now this … Why am I being haunted by John Major?!? I mean he’s not even d–”
Christmas lights on Oxford Street in central London | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images
“Now come along,” said the former prime minister, extending a hand, the color and consistency of tracing paper to May. “I’ve got something to show you.”
With a whoosh, they were through the roof of the Palace of Westminster and staring at the all-too-obvious metaphor of Big Ben covered in scaffolding. Soaring over the Thames, they flew over the streets of London, cruised over the M25 and landed in the Shires, where they stood upon an open country road, with fields on either side.
“The wheat field!” May gasped. “Why, it’s the wheat field I used to run through as a girl!” She made as if to sprint through it, but the grey hand pulled her back. “Not now, for time is short and we have much to see,” the spirit said. “But think about the CAP. Now you’ll have to subsidize the farmers all on your own. Have you thought about how to do that?”
The air around them whirled up, and they landed back in London, hovering invisibly in Whitehall. Looking at the Routemaster buses and the old cars, she realized they were back in the late 1970s. A semi-transparent grey hand pointed out a row of black cars sweeping past. “Look, May, the IMF delegation,” he said. “Do you remember why we joined in the first place? Our economy was thoroughly shafted. Let’s not go there again.”
The Singing Tree designed by stage and performance designer Es Devlin, in the grand entrance of the Victoria and Alfred Museum | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
The view went wavy again, and suddenly the Priuses, Boris buses and bike lanes reappeared; it was 2017 once more. “Think about the ultras, May,” he warned her. “Why do they not defend their position with logic and passion, with thoughtful, cogent argument, instead of low-grade personal abuse that has been their standard response so far?”
She thought about the economic arguments, about having joined a trading bloc of 500 million people, about companies moving to Europe. She thought about the party, and the country, split down the middle. “Humbug! All of it!” she declared. And the ghost was gone.
Phase 3: The Second of the Three Spirits
Back in her office, May fell fast asleep. She didn’t hear the knock on the door from junior SpAds carrying dossiers of drafts, their coordinators’ coordinators bringing boxes of impact assessments, nor the banging of the workmen repairing the clock. She could have slept through Sports and Social karaoke night. But then the bell began to strike again, and she woke with a start.
She wondered which of her curtains this new specter would draw back, and put them every one aside with her own hands. For she wished to challenge the Spirit on the moment of its appearance and did not wish to be taken by surprise and made nervous. May didn’t like surprises. There had been far too many from her own backbenchers recently.
The first sense she had that something was amiss came via her nostrils. A pleasant smell filled, the air: pine trees, vin chaud… tartiflette? It was the scent of après-ski! The window burst open and, with a perfect schuss and a cloud of ethereal snowflakes, the next visitor arrived. The snow disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived, leaving EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier standing there, flickering as if projected upon a screen. “Bonjour, Madame May,” said the gentleman from Savoie. “I am ze ghost of Brexit present.”
A charity “Santa Run” in Battersea Park in London | Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images
May rolled her eyes, grabbed the hand he extended — warm and toasty, where Major’s had been cold and clammy — and they were off.
Speeding past Oxford, May looked wistfully at her alma mater. The Spirit did not tarry here, but bade May hold her robe, and passing on above the moor, sped — whither? Not to sea? To sea. To May’s horror, looking back, she saw the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks, behind them.
Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks, some league or so from shore, on which the waters chafed and dashed the wild year through, there stood a solitary lighthouse. Great heaps of seaweed clung to its base, and storm-birds rose and fell about it.
“What on earth are we doing here?” May demanded, saltwater ruining her kitten heels. The spirit, who had magicked up a pair of white gloves, was wiping seaweed from a tarnished plaque on the wall beneath the lighthouse. THIS COASTAL DEFENSE WAS ERECTED WITH FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE FROM THE EUROPEAN REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT FUND, the inscription read. It shimmered in the winter light, and suddenly, in the distance, hundreds of similar understated plaques twinkled for an instant as well, mainly in areas where the conservative party hated spending money.
Shoppers in Carnaby Street in London | Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
“Ma chère Theresa,” said the ghostly chief negotiator. “Look at how much money we ‘ave spent on the regions!”
“They will absolutely, ‘ow you say, kick off when that funding is withdrawn,” he intoned with just a hint of melodrama. “I ‘ope you and Monsieur ‘Ammond can come up with a way to fund it from central government, because otherwise these bits of your islands will just start to fall into ze sea!”
Looking back towards the land, a little family wheeled a much-mended pushchair along the promenade. The children were thin, and the parents looked hunched and careworn. A few words of their conversation carried over on the wind. Benefits sanctioned … someone in the class had ricketts … I’ve asked for more hours, I’m praying there should be some with Brexit-time.
The gulls screeched overhead and an icy wind blew across the waves. Staring out across the sea, dark clouds dotted the horizon. They turned, the family out of view, and gesturing towards the briny depths, Barnier breathed in the fresh marine air and raised an eyebrow. “Voilà, May,” he smirked. “At least you know what this border with Ireland looks like.”
With a huge rush, they were flying again, back to London. May was feeling utterly dejected: it was cold, getting dark, and sleet was falling. She longed to go back to Downing Street, put an extra lump of coal on the fire and draw the curtains tight. But the French phantom had one last stop, as they assumed invisibility and swooped into one of the country’s top universities.
The Christmas at Kew event in London | Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
The scene was an academic’s office: books lined the walls, papers were stacked up on the desk, and the professor leaned back in his chair. “What an unusual email address,” he intoned to the graduate student sitting across from him. “[email protected]! Did you not think about changing it to something a little more professional when you graduated from Bologna?” The student laughed, for the joke was all too obvious — he was only a shade over five foot tall.
“I know, I know,” he replied, with the slightest hint of a Danish accent. “It was my nickname in the first research lab I worked in, and it just kind of stuck.”
The Professor’s face turned grave as he folded Tim’s CV between his bony fingers. “Well, it’s very charming, and I can see why this little joke has continued, haha,” the Professor said. “But I’m terribly sorry to say, while I’d love to have you work on the cancer research project, the funding is part of an EU cluster, and I simply don’t know whether we’ll be able to take you on. So, if you could hold off replying to Harvard while I chase the vice chancellor to see what’s happening, we might know soon — but I’d also understand if you didn’t want to wait.”
“It’s alright,” said Tim. “I understand. I’ll wait.”
The sleet was hammering down on the windows now, and the wind had ruffled Barnier’s silver coiffure into a Johnson-esque mess. A single tear rolled down May’s cheek, and they started off back to the capital. Flying through the storms, May said to the spirit, “is there nothing I can do?” she asked, softly.
The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in south west London | Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
“Tell the truth, May,” the spirit answered. “Throw Cameron under ze bus, tell them he was a fool who couldn’t control the party, bring back some discipline and show them the impact assessments — it’ll make everyone poorer for decades. We’d let you stay. Don’t you remember ze good times?”
By the time they returned to the capital, May was so exhausted she didn’t even remember getting into bed.
Phase 4: The Third of the Three Spirits
The bell started to ring. May sat bolt upright in her bed. A strange clanking noise issued from within the walls of 10 Downing Street, and the door started to bang. A huge force pushed the door clean off its frame, as if propelled by a battering ram, but what emerged was more frightening still. A strange man-robot hybrid broke through the splintered frame. “MAY” it honked. “I AM THE HAN-BOT 5000, THE GHOST OF BREXIT FUTURE!”
It did not extend a hand, but instead a tractor beam issued from the bodycam mounted on its shoulder, dragging the PM towards it. “COME!” screeched the cyborg.
As the time-travel mist cleared, May realized they hadn’t gone back, as she had with Major, but forwards. The Palace of Westminster had been restored, but, O horror, O calumny, Big Ben was wrapped from head to foot in neon advertisements for everything from eyelash extensions to extra-powerful steroids. A glass dome extended out from the roof above, enveloping the Houses of Parliament in a bubble of purified air distinct from the thick, dark smog which enveloped everything else, choking May. “What happened?” she spluttered.
“I have left behind the weak human form you knew as Daniel Hannan,” the cyborg replied. “I am a man-machine hybrid powered by shale gas and pure free-market thought!
The Singing Tree designed by stage and performance designer Es Devlin, in the grand entrance of the Victoria and Alfred Museum | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
The black waters of the Thames rolled greasily under Westminster Bridge, as the odd dead rat cresting the the foamy morass.
“Oh, you meant what happened to London, “bleated the robot. “Free from cumbersome environmental regulation! No more red tape! Freedom! drill, baby, drill!” it crowed as dilapidated buses trundled over Westminster Bridge, belching out clouds of black smoke. “British fuel! One hundred percent! We have found sources of natural power bigger, and dirtier, than Damian Green’s pornography collection,” it added. Sad groups of people shuffled along, but there were no crowds. Where were the tourists, she wondered? “Border Control, 100%,” said the cyborg as if reading her mind.
“Is everywhere like this?” asked May, horrified. “No, no,” said the HanBot. The spirit had one human and one bionic arm: with the human arm it tapped a button on its chest, revealing a screen, some kind of monstrous Tellytubby. A picture flickered up, a bucolic view of the countryside. “GOD, I LOVE ENGLAND IN MAY!” he shouted. But the picture was of Wales and a tiny date stamp in the corner showed it was decades old. It was confusing, and sad.
May recoiled as part of the join between the creature’s human flesh and metal limbs started to strain, showing the wires that slotted into the organs. “Free markets!” it declared, proudly. “Zero tax Britain is global leader in organ sales! Innovative revenue streams! Cyberliver works more efficiently, only needs replacing every 3-5 years. It’s all about choice!”
An ambulance wailed past, “NO SURGE PRICING” emblazoned on its side. Posters advertised website-by-website internet access deals. “Free markets!” screeched the creature, its eyes a-fire. “Free markets! Wealth Creators! No skivers, only strivers!”
Choristers from the Salisbury Cathedral Choir | Matt Cardy/Getty Images
“Stop, stop,” May implored the creature. “I can’t take any more!”
They shimmered back through time, to the near future. “The problem with Brexit is, it hasn’t been done properly,” whispered the Etonian tones of one of her fellow MPs. “This deal will cost us a fortune, while leaving us obeying the rules, with no say in setting them!”
“Quite,” came their co-conspirator’s reply. “We need to take over. Let’s do this the old-school way. Far too much compromise going on. The public may think they’ve suffered enough, but it’s time for another election!”
And then they were back. The rush as the spirit disappeared left May standing on Westminster Bridge. She had never been so glad to see a coachload of Spanish teenagers bumping into people with their backpacks and spending their money on souvenirs. May ran back to Downing Street, smiling at everyone, wishing them the best of the season and handing out sweets to the children.
Phase 5: The End of It.
The phone rang. “Anna?” said May to her niece, “We’d love to come for dinner. We’ll bring the wine — Chilean, it’s covered by that nice EU free-trade agreement — and I’d love it if you came and helped me draft a speech. A big one. You see, I’ve been thinking about what you said …”
Frances Robinson is a freelance journalist based in London.