The stage is set for one of the greatest moments of political hubris, second only to the astonishing Brexit result last year, writes Thomas Coughlan
The Brexit premiership was always meant to be a poisoned chalice, but no one expected the poison to work quite so quickly.
Tasked with navigating the country through a nearly impossible divorce from Europe (like trying to unbake a cake, as one commentator put it) and keeping her hand firmly on the tiller during the inevitable post-Brexit economic downturn, the smart money said that even Theresa May would have limped to the 2020 election battered and bruised.
Only it didn’t seem to work like that. Labour imploded, the economy didn’t.
Theresa May’s leadership seemed secure, but there was one thing missing. Facing a fierce challenge from Ed Miliband in 2015, David Cameron had only managed to walk away from the election with a majority of 17. Expecting to go into another coalition, Cameron was elated, he could govern with that, just.
Then came the Brexit referendum. Party discipline in the UK is not what it is in New Zealand; MPs regularly cross the floor, much to the frustration of their leaders. Foreseeing that Brexit would involve some serious political acrobatics, May knew she would require some Parliamentary breathing space and, with polls showing Labour languishing a full 20 points below the Tories, she was confident she could get it. The ensuing six weeks have set the stage for one of the greatest moments of political hubris, second only to the astonishing EU referendum of last year.
Margaret Thatcher once said that her greatest achievement was Tony Blair. He could just as well argue his greatest achievement to be David Cameron. After three embarrassing defeats at the hands of Blair’s resurgent New Labour, Cameron came to power promising his own kind of third way conservatism. Out went the party’s old flaming torch logo replaced by a stately green oak tree. Also in was climate change, same-sex marriage, and a focus on the achievement gap between white and BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) students.
This shouldn’t be unfamiliar to New Zealanders. Influential conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie wrote in The Times before the last election that John Key was “arguably Mr Cameron’s closest ally on the world stage” in ideological terms. It’s helpful to think of Cameron like this. His was a softer, PR-friendly conservatism, as much concerned with selfies as spending cuts (though there were plenty of those).
The other kind of conservative, whose idea of female empowerment begins with the Queen and ends with Margaret Thatcher, and who believe homosexuality to be something good men grew out of after boarding school, were banished to the back benches.
These idealogical conservatives, who in New Zealand might banish themselves to ACT or Colin Craig’s Conservatives, began to cause problems for Cameron. His tenuous grip on power magnified the influence of this rebellious back bench, whose cause célèbre was a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. To consolidate his rule once and for all, Cameron gave them what they wanted; a once-in-a-lifetime referendum on the EU, which he lost. The resulting bloodletting has seen Cameron’s ‘chumocracy’ of Eton-educated toffs cede control of the government to this former back bench.
This is the mould in which Theresa May’s conservatism is cast. May spent six years at the Home Office, often looked down on as being parochial and working class by the more senior White Hall ministries like the Foreign Office or the Treasury. There, with the help of Nick Timothy, her closest advisor, she honed her political philosophy, dubbed Erdington conservatism, after Timothy’s working-class Birmingham neighbourhood — into the national consciousness.
Out went unrepentant neoliberalism, in came economic intervention to help the ‘strivers’ and ‘Just About Managing’. Out too, were immigrants; Theresa May presided over a rigid tightening of the nation’s immigration laws. One campaign she oversaw involved a car driving through immigrant neighbourhoods towing a billboard encouraging illegal migrants to leave voluntarily.
To the right, to the right
Rifts aren’t a uniquely Tory problem. As the Labour Party under Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband grew its vote in metropolitan areas, it saw a haemorrhaging of social conservatives to marginal parties. As New Zealanders well remember, under FPP, this isn’t immediately catastrophic to a ruling party; the electoral system works its magic to launder their dissent out of the system.
In 2010 and 2015, however, the system reached breaking point. Labour (and some Conservative) voters flooded to UKIP (UK Independence Party), whose anti-Europe, anti-immigrant message resonated with a public who blamed stagnant wages, rural unemployment and the catastrophic decline of Britain’s industrial towns on immigrants.
This dissident vote wanted a voice, but thanks to the mercurial electoral arithmetic of FPP, they were denied. In the 2015 election, nearly four million cast a vote for UKIP and were rewarded with just one seat. By contrast, the Scottish National Party managed to win 56 seats for just under 1.5 million votes. This blatant electoral injustice fanned the flames for what was to come: a nationwide referendum, in which each vote counted, but the party didn’t last long after that.
With UKIP’s ultimate goal of leaving the EU achieved, the party imploded. Last year it endured three leaders, one lasting just 18 days. It reached its nadir in October, when Stephen Wolfe, frontrunner to take over the party leadership, had to be taken from the European Parliament in an ambulance after being punched in the face by another MEP (Member of the European Parliament). May will be hoping to welcome as many of these four million disillusioned voters into the fold as she can.
If Theresa May can heal the rift within her own party and consolidate the disparate conservative electorate with the wayward UKIP vote, she will have brought this government back from the brink. In order to do that, she’ll need a weak Labour opposition to enable her to pivot rightward socially without losing any voters on her more socially conscious, pro-European side.
Labour’s Brexit Problem
Labour faces an internal contradiction of its own. Jeremy Corbyn, an old-school socialist, is more at home with the anti-free trade and anti-EU wing of his party (he campaigned unenthusiastically for Remain last year), but in a bid to appeal to Labour’s powerful, metropolitan Remain wing, he abandoned his Europhobia and has pledged that a Labour government would keep Britain in the European Single Market post-Brexit, which would very likely mean the current open border with Europe would persist.
This has opened up a rift in his own support. Over the past year, Brexiteers have jealously guarded their single biggest success against all challenges. When a case was brought to the High Court questioning Theresa May’s constitutional right to trigger Article 50 without the backing of Parliament, the popular Daily Mail ran a smear campaign against the judges. Splashing their images across its front page under the headline “Enemies of the People”.
May is the only leader promising what is known as a “hard” Brexit, which will extract the UK from the EU as much as possible, giving it control of its borders and all other areas of government in exchange for what could possibly be economic suicide. She is gambling that Jeremy Corbyn’s untested brand of 1970s style socialism will prove unpalatable for the Conservative’s economic liberals, while his promise to maintain single market membership will put off immigration-weary UKIPpers from returning to the tent.
Bernie bros and Corbynistas
It’s not all gloom for Labour. Corbyn’s supporters however, have much to be cheerful about. Theresa May has run a dreadful campaign — the worst I can remember. By contrast, Corbyn has defied almost all expectations by running a slick operation narrowing the polls to within striking distance of Downing Street.
Labour’s leftist manifesto was received positively by a nation reeling from seven years of austerity, with a health service crumbling and students facing punishing rises in tuition fees. May’s by contrast, was a disaster. Her proposal to force pensioners to pay for social care with the equity in their homes was branded a “dementia tax” and forced an embarrassing mid-campaign U-Turn. She nearly became the first Tory in living memory to lose the grey vote.
Corbyn is hopeful that the swell of students and young people registering to vote will benefit him. Like most Western nations, the UK is beleaguered by dismal voter turnout, but this election has seen a promising uptick in voter registration, mainly among the young who are more inclined to vote Labour.
While Corbyn has been at ease in crowds and debates, May has been awkward. Her decision to boycott the only face-to-face TV debate was widely lampooned, especially when voters discovered she had decided to spend the day at a cheese factory instead. A narrative emerged of a leader so sure of victory, she could not be bothered to earn constituents’ votes. “You’re not worth her time” said Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader during a BBC debate, “don’t give her yours”.
Corbyn’s campaign is drawing on skills learned from Bernie Sanders’ unlikely successes in the Democratic Primaries. Claire Sandberg, one of Sanders’ former aides has been assisting left-wing Progressive Alliance, to encourage tactical voting against the conservatives and Sanders himself has been in the country this week. Though not campaigning directly for Corbyn, his not-so-veiled messages of support have galvanised the campaign.
Jeremy Corbyn has also gained an unexpected boost from the twin terrorist attacks that have befallen the country during the campaign. While the Manchester attack appeared to benefit May, by bringing her Home Office credentials into the spotlight, the London Bridge attack has cast a damning light on her legacy in that role, particularly her decision to cut the numbers of both ordinary and armed police.
The controversy worsened as the scale of the security services’ failure emerged. Senior figures in London’s Muslim community had repeatedly raised concerns about the London attackers; the competence of MI5 and the police force in monitoring the figures has been called into question.
Their failure was almost farcical, as footage emerged of one of the bombers unfurling an ISIS banner in Regent’s Park in a TV documentary, The Jihadist Next Door. The controversy has dented May’s reputation enough that the Cameronite, liberal wing of the party has come out of hiding. On Tuesday Boris Johnson, hitherto invisible in this campaign, suggested that increased police numbers might have stopped the attack.
This election should have been a foregone conclusion. May could have used a rift in the Labour party to permanently heal the rift in her own. Instead, her own poor campaign performance and an unexpectedly strong Labour showing suggests to me that she’s already lost. Sure, she’s likely to win the election, but not with anything like the mandate that she hoped for and with a party as divided as hers, there’s only so long a leader with a weak mandate can survive.