We’d been expecting a reshuffle for a while. Critics of the government were preparing to say that it as rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. But after yesterday, it seems that the government has lost the ability even to move the deckchairs.
I’ve been expecting the end of Theresa May’s government for some time, and have been wrong at each turn. It’s started to dawn on me that we’re not dealing with politics as usual. That’s not just on the great strategic party-political level, but on a much more human level.
The PM has been shown to be unable to move anyone. Not the disloyal; not the incapable; not the women and minorities that the Tories briefed that they wanted to put forward as the new face of government. The power to give or withdraw favour this is arguably the PM’s greatest asset, and clearly it has been lost.
Under normal circumstances, ambitious leadership contenders would close in for the kill, but since June we’ve learnt that no one has the stomach to wield the knife. The remain wing of the party fears handing control over to the leavers; and the leavers are worried about handing power over to the swivel-eyed lunatics. So instead nothing happens, and we have a government that increasingly lacks a prime minister.
What could you infer from a government without a proper PM. Well, from the perspective of those working in government, this is only going to be bad news. A chaotic situation, where ministers lack the fear of removal, is a recipe for months of rolling disaster. I can already think of some members of the cabinet who choose to carry out their negotiations with Treasury in public view, daring the chancellor to slap them down. There will be more of this, and from more corners.
But I find myself more intrigued by the implications for Brexit. This is not the reshuffle of a PM who can achieve anything remotely controversial – fox hunting, grammar schools, pensions reform, housing policy. The idea that she can deliver an unpopular Brexit, without a majority, and still fulfil all the promises that she made last year, seems like utter fantasy.
I hadn’t expected this reshuffle to resolve the unanswered questions here, but it goes to show that the elephant is still firmly in the room. And, increasingly, nobody in government looks big enough to take on an elephant…
Never plan a blog post in advance. I’d been working my brain around the whole question of how to judge the odds of there being a Tory leadership contest over the next month. Now my only question is who is it who the final winner is going to be.
This may sound like hindsight, but I think I’d concluded the jig was up last night. It was Tim Montgomerie’s tweet below that did it:
He gets the glory of saying it a day before everyone else is forced to agree, following a crash-and-burn conference speech by Theresa May that put Ed Miliband to shame. You can say that it was the cough sweets; you can say it was the heckler with the P45 stunt; you can say it was the letters falling off the wall behind her mid-way through the speech – but the thing that really doomed Theresa May was the sense of flaccid apathy that appears to have dominated the whole Manchester conference. Her career was over by the time she left the stage; but it was already over before she came on.
I first came into the business of government mid-way during the last days of Blair and the doomed Brown ministry. There was a sense of tiredness that pervaded everything; of staying in government out of habit more than conviction. It’s remarkable how fast this government had sunk to the same level. The more ruthless Tories have sensed this, and unlike Labour under Brown, look set to take action on this.
Had it not been for the speech, this would have been subtle. Key people would have let the Tory conference knowing that something had to be done, and in a week or two the men in grey suits would have given the PM the message that the time had come to leave.
Now, however, the end will be public. Don’t expect the contest to start tomorrow – after something that bad, there will be a reluctance to be the one seen to wield the knife. May herself may have to step down, albeit with the chairman of the 1922 committee standing just out of camera shot.
Oddly enough, that shift may significantly change the nature of the contest. Previously, I would have thought that the prize was most likely to go to the person brave enough to set up the coup. That person (presumably Boris) would have a leadership campaign waiting and ready to go when the word came out. A coronation did not seem off the cards.
But with the vacancy at Number 10 so obviously posted, the political environment becomes very different. May isn’t fighting for her life – she’s bequeathing her support to an heir. Not only that, but the fact that her end was so abject and piteous actually reflects back badly on those who went to the trouble of sticking in the knife.
That’s bad for Boris. If the end of May is seen as having been about bad luck and betrayal, it taints everyone who worked to bring it about. Conversely, those who stuck through to the end look like good soldiers. Perhaps the moment in the speech that counts most was when Amber Rudd was caught on camera ordering Boris to stand up and support May with an ovation, so the PM could scarf another throat pastille and keep going for longer. Now the end has passed, those who stuck around till now are in a strong position.
When the contest does come, it’s Boris vs Stop Boris in the first instance; with the role of Stop Boris probably being played by Amber Rudd. I’d assume that Boris implodes for having brought about such a dreadful end to May and generally being a loose cannon, and the hard Brexit wing of the party passes its support over to another Brexiteer.
Whoever this would be would be my most likely winner of the contest overall, but it’s hard to figure out who picks up the crown. Maybe not David Davis given his poor performance as Brexit negotiator and association with the election disaster. Rees-Mogg can be guaranteed to win the votes of the membership, but is probably kept off the ballot by MPs because he is guaranteed to lose the next election.
Gove might do it, but I see him as more of a kingmaker (Rudd’s best chance would come from getting him on her team). If I was a betting man, I’d be checking the odds for Priti Patel, should she put her name forward – she had a good conference and the least male, pale and stale candidate the Tories are going to find. That could work well just now, if you set aside the fact that she’s got all the diplomatic skills of the Spanish national police.
But this is all politics. The question we should be asking is who should the Tories be looking for right now? But then, would you expect a civil servant to answer that…?
All revolutions come to an end; and mercifully the last month is over. We have a Prime Minister; the economy is proceeding vaguely OK; UKIP and Labour are back competing for the prize for best circular firing squad – and we can afford to breathe a little easier as we slap on the factor 15.
But the underlying politics hasn’t gone away. And one of the questions which is going to keep coming up is whether or not Theresa May is going to call a snap election.
The conditions couldn’t be better – a honeymoon period for a new PM; an opposition far down in the polls and so divided that the only way it can become more split is if they bring in nuclear physicists. For most of the country, the slogan can be ‘Conservatives. Have you seen the alternatives?’
The prize is worth having too. Right away, it gives the PM her own electoral mandate – both with the country and with her own MPs. That will be jolly handy in the Brexit deliberations, especially if the deal turns out not to be to everyone’s liking. Second, it is a chance to expand that woefully thin majority into something actually workable. Third, if timed right, it could send the Labour party so far into the electoral wilderness that it guarantees a decade of Tory rule.
Balanced against that, though, elections are risky. And as far as the public is concerned, we’ve had more than enough votes, thank you very much. At a time of crisis, it sends the wrong message for everyone to go back to their constituencies – especially for what might look like a nakedly political stunt.
You can balance the presentational arguments any way you want. But the one question you can’t duck is ‘would this actually work’?
The election wouldn’t be worth calling if Labour weren’t in such a dire state. The latest polls show a Tory lead of something between 6% and 14% (at the election, it was 6.6%). That’s before the Tories unlock their filing cabinet of everything Jeremy Corbyn has ever done – which they’ve so far had no need to open. According to Electoral Calculus, the Tories could expect a majority of about 50 from current poll shares.
It could get a lot better for them though. If the Labour party does split (and, for a loose enough definition of ‘split’, that boat has already sailed), the gap opens up much wider. Out of interest, I pulled out the 2015 General Election data, and looked what would happen if the Labour vote was cut precisely in half. The results shocked me.
If you combine a perfect split with the current poll numbers, the two halves of Labour combined win just 98 seats; and Theresa May comes home with a majority of 264. The Tories win seats like Sunderland Central and Islington South. If you assume the two halves of Labour get a fair split of MPs, the SNP becomes the largest opposition party.
And this is without a single extra person voting Tory who isn’t currently planning to do so.
It’s the same method that the SNP has used to capture all but three seats in Scotland with only 50% of the votes – with your opposition split, the ruling party always wins big. If you don’t like it, you should have thought about that when we had the AV referendum.
Of course, this result is an arithmetic fiction. Labour won’t split neatly in half (the worst possible outcome in a first-past-the-post system), and more generally a catastrophe like this would not occur through a neat two-party swing without a lot of strategic swirls to shape its position on the ground.
But in 1983, when the SDP walked away from the Labour party, it took about a quarter of Labour voters with them. Some of that is already priced into the poll numbers. But even with just 10% of current Labour voters splitting off, the government could expect to take about 42 seats. Parliamentary maths turns that into a majority of 100.
But there’s always a ‘but’
Based on that, you think someone from CCHQ should be out picking the battle-bus already. But before they start checking the sockets and steaming the Boris off the back seats, I offer one cautious question. Where have the Remain voters gone?
If my twitter feed is anything to go by, Remain voters are still somewhat upset. They are unlikely to be voting Tory any time soon. And what we saw from the Scottish referendum is that when people are mobilised in a referendum, they often go through quite a fundamental change in their political identity. Dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters looked in the mirror and suddenly realised that they now voted SNP.
I don’t know where the Never-Leave camp will end up. But the Liberal Democrats are the ones making the clearest and most direct pitch for their support, drawing on a long and committed history of pro-European activism. And while this isn’t showing up in a big Lib Dem surge in current polls, I’d be very surprised if it didn’t manifest itself over the next 18 months.
The last election was all about the Tories stealing Lib Dem votes. The next election could well see those same voters flooding back. In West London, where I live, the Tories have driven out all but one Lib Dem MP; but with stonking Remain majorities I think they are very vulnerable here. Other seats, like Bath or Oxford East, also look primed to fall.
In addition, the Tory victories in these seats was driven in a large part by a belief that it was a choice between Cameron or Miliband. While people might choose Theresa May over Jeremy Corbyn, it won’t feel like the same kind of decision. If anything, the Lib Dems can make a convincing claim that it would be folly to give the Tories that kind of power without an effective opposition.
So I suspect there could be 15-40 seats where a Lib Dem resurgence could eat into that Tory electoral margin. And human beings are loss-averse – one seat likely to be lost feels more real than one ready to be won. Especially when losing eight of them means you’re a minority government. Without Labour disarray, an election becomes very risky.
Never mind if; when?
Setting aside whether this is a good idea, an election definitely is not a good idea right now. Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake, and at this moment both Labour and UKIP are busy destroying themselves. Another six months of self-destruction leaves more time and space for the coup de grace. The thing the Tories really want is to go into the election fighting an officially divided Labour party, busy screwing each other out of voters.
But the longer they wait, the more time government has to be pinned to a plan for Brexit. Right now, the government position satisfies about 75% of the country – the people have spoken and we promise to try and figure out what they said. The negatives of having to choose, and potentially getting quite a poor deal, have yet to filter through. When the choices are explicit, the politics becomes a lot more complicated. Given that the government will be seeking a compromise, it can expect to be attacked from both sides.
There’s probably a sweet spot in early 2017 – long enough for Labour to be in open warfare; soon enough that Brexit still feels like a distant thing happening to other people.
While I stop here, there are still plenty of surprises lurking in the shadows. If Labour splits, does anti-Corbyn Labour partner up with the Lib Dems? Is the Tory party immune to splits, or is there mischief to come? Where is Scotland in all of this? Will the politics of parliament find a way around the ballot box? There’s room for a book’s worth of caveats.
But as things stand there are good reasons for an election, and soon. And there’s no fixed terms parliament act in the world that’s capable of stopping them.
You know you’ve got too much news when, for most of a week, the catastrophic disintegration of a major political party struggles to make the front page. Spare a particular thought for Angela Eagle, whose leadership launch had the misfortune of clashing with Andrea Leadsom withdrawing from the Tory contest – meaning that as she set out her vision for the party, all of the top journalists were running for the exits. At the Q&A at the end, she was left talking to a half-empty room.
As someone who admires effective politicians, you can’t help but be impressed by the Tories – a shock leadership contest completely resolved in sixteen days. By contrast, the Labour party will be publicly banging its head against a wall from now until late September. Throw the Trident vote into the middle of that, and political journalism will start to resemble investigating a rail wreck and counting the body parts.
Ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected, we’ve been watching to see whether his leadership could be made to work in the general terms of Westminster – new electoral ground broken; government forced to climb down; etc. In those terms, Corbyn has failed. We are now into a very different contest: not a courtship of the public, but a messy and spiteful divorce, complete with thrown bricks and death threats.
It’s so intractable because at the its heart there is a clash of two completely watertight mandates.
As leader of the opposition, Corbyn is expected to be the person most able to form a government if the ruling party gives way. His mandate is established by his ability to carry something approaching a parliamentary majority, and to mobilise the biggest team to hold the government to account. Corbyn can’t do this.
But as leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn has a direct mandate from the membership. His job is to stand up for what Labour members believe. In terms of the party constitution, authority radiates from this position, and not from his abilities in Parliament. Corbyn’s mandate here is still strong.
This is a muddle, created by the mistaken opinion that more democracy is always a good thing. In practice, split authorities are usually a deadlock waiting to happen (just look at Congress in the US). And when people insist on completely ignoring all but one source of authority, the results rarely look democratic.
For most of us, the hint’s in the name. It’s ‘leader of the opposition’, not ‘opponent in chief’. But Corbyn’s claim is entirely in terms of the latter.
It’s not impossible to reconcile these two requirements. You could argue that the leader of the Labour arty needs to be able to do both, or has to go. Alternatively, you could imagine a Labour party where Corbyn has a title of ‘leader’, and someone else is the public face. In the event of a win, that person becomes PM with Corbyn hovering behind their shoulder as the party’s spiritual leader. But the first has been tried, and the second would require a heavy reworking of the party constitution, which isn’t going to happen half-way through a leadership contest.
And it also doesn’t address something deep in Labour’s soul. For a decent part of Labour’s membership, victory is a dirty word. In their mental thesaurus, you’d find it next to ‘compromise’. The head of Momentum prompted astonishment early in the week with the tweet below.
This conflict is anything but new. It was best shown in the 1920s and 30s in another battle for the soul of the Labour party. Ramsay MacDonald was Britain’s first Labour PM. The reason very few people have heard of him is that he is pretty much damnatio memoriae within the party because of his reaction to the economic crisis following the Wall Street Crash.
His own party wouldn’t back him and his Chancellor on an austerity programme. In 1931, unable to get any business done at a time of national crisis, he tried to form a National Government with the Tories. His followers reacted by expelling him and his friends from the party; there was a snap election where Labour lost 235 seats and the man left in charge was a sainted, otherworldly pacifist called George Lansbury.
Post-Iraq, the Labour party is dominated by the Lansbury wing. The New Statesman recently pointed out that three quarters of the Labour party membership are ABC1s – affluent people – and most are living in the south east and London. It’s an ideological commitment far more than it is an upsurge of the working masses.
I’m wary of calling this leadership election. It’s wrong to assume that former Corbyn voters will stick with him, after his catalogue of disasters. The electorate in this contest is sufficiently weird that you can predict little. However:
There are 180,000 new Labour members since May 2015 – almost half the party – and I’m willing to bet they break more for Corbyn than against.
The unions are still backing Corbyn, and will bring their own votes to bear.
The moderates haven’t found anyone compelling as an alternative.
Labour’s capacity to vote for electoral suicide is already proven.
So I think Corbyn’s chances are pretty good. Which, for those of us who would like at least the threat of Labour winning a general election, is very bad news.
Normally, I’m very clear that political parties in the UK never split. It’s just too costly and has little chance of success. But this is different. It’s too fundamental a question about what Labour is there for. After the loss of Scotland, there’s a sense that nothing is safe and that no Labour MP can guarantee their own job. Right now, 36% of Labour voters think Jeremy Corbyn would make the best PM, and 40% say Theresa May. Before the last election, Ed Miliband was getting 73%, and that was judged disastrous.
Against such a backdrop, the costs of cooperation may be greater than those of disloyalty. Unless Corbyn loses, this story isn’t going to be over.
I’ll admit, that if you’re going to come and claim something as the biggest political news of the past week, you’ve got a bit of competition. But I have a sneaking suspicion that, with hindsight, the decision of Nigel Farage to step down as UKIP leader (properly, this time) could end up as the most important.
As predictions go, this may sound a little eccentric; and you may require a little convincing to make you think me borderline sane.
For a long time now, UKIP has been the dog that didn’t bark of British politics. Set aside the Leave vote for a moment (where UKIP were treated as a hindrance more than an asset); for twenty years, UKIP has been a party banging its head against a brick wall. At the last general election they managed to pick up almost 13% of the vote, but lost half of their seats. For years, people have predicted UKIP as a major force in the future of British politics, but time after time it fails to turn up.
This is a double puzzle to me. First off, people are fed up with politics. That seems to be a general consensus that Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems are all led by besuited Oxbridge graduates who get into public life with the intention of fiddling their expenses. Setting aside the fact that UKIP MEPs mostly are suit-wearing ex-bankers who treat their expense accounts like an EU-funded research programme into cutting edge accountancy fraud, the fact is that they successfully sell themselves as representatives of ordinary people. If you want to protest against the system, they’re ready and waiting for you.
Second, if you share my belief that the politics of the 21st century is likely to be as much about the case for or against globalisation, UKIP are the only party able to stand firmly on the side of stopping the multinational whirl. For people who experience globalisation as unemployment and marginalisation, UKIP should be the natural party that they vote for.
So why has the story of UKIP been one of such failure? Well, I think it’s obvious…
Nigel Farage is a lousy politician. I don’t say that just because he’s widely loathed by the chattering classes – indeed this was in some ways his greatest/only political asset. But he is outright dreadful at the things that politicians need to be good at if they are to build a serious political party.
He was no good at political tactics. When he ran for Parliament in 2010, he thought the best thing he could do to engage with the voters in the final hours of the campaign was fly a plane 10,000 feet above their heads.
He’s equally poor at strategy, having no sense of prioritising key seats or important areas. UKIP’s successes, such as Rotherham or Heywood and Middleton, tend to be locally led.
He can’t build a coalition – he’s managed to trigger parliamentary rebellions in a party with only one MP; and the party’s national executive is about as fissiparous as a debating society made out of student poets.
His one strength has been getting the TV cameras to look at Nigel Farage; and he’s never seemed to wonder whether there’s anything more to UKIP’s success than that.
As a result, UKIP has never built a party capable of winning in the British political system. It hasn’t even needed tactical voting to keep them out – as the losses at the last election in Thanet South and Castle Point, where the Tory and Labour votes were dead-split, went to show. Instead, they flutter round the margins in proportional representation systems like the Welsh Assembly elections, which are purposefully designed to make sure that all have prizes.
All of which has obscured the fact that UKIP is standing in front of the biggest open goal in British politics. There are seats in the north of England that have voted for Labour every election since the General Strike. They have continued doing this, particularly over the past twenty years, even as the party has become more and more in the sway of metropolitan leftist cliques. Blair, Miliband and now Corbyn have only served to make that alienation worse. The only thing lower than their turnout is their Guardian readership; and last month they voted heavily in favour of Leave.
Right now, there isn’t really an opposition party in England’s northern cities. The Lib Dems were close to becoming one, taking control of serious councils and some hard industrial seats like Redcar. All that disappeared when Clegg signed up for the coalition, and (in net terms) UKIP picked up the voters. With a bit of focused effort, there are a great many seats that could be terribly vulnerable.
This may sound far-fetched. Labour still gets more than 50% of the vote in many of its northern constituencies. But the same was true in many Scottish seats as recently as 2010 – and all but one of them turned SNP-yellow on election night. That all took place on the back of a referendum where many thousands of voters suddenly rethought their traditional allegiance, and wondered whether their interests were best served by continuing voting the way their great-grandparents had.
When Red Clydeside switched to the SNP, the Labour Party arguably lost the chance of ever being in majority government again. If UKIP pulls the same trick in Tyneside, in Yorkshire and in Lancs, then the Labour Party is as dead as the Liberals of Lloyd George. This fact isn’t lost on Labour – this is why the efforts to remove Corbyn are as fierce and universal as they are.
There have long been plenty of push factors to stop people voting Labour in these areas. But a new UKIP leader might, for the first time, figure out a way to pull them in.
And if that happens, then we have a real revolution on our hands – a genuine populist, anti-establishment political party, as troubling to the status quo as Labour was a century and a half before. Compared to that, the choice of the next Prime Minister is a trivial thing.
Who thought, when they woke up this morning, that the Tory Party was about to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme with an equally bloody massacre? Not Boris Johnson, for sure.
It feels fun to begin this blog with the most spectacular act of backstabbery seen in recent times. Setting aside the politics of it, you have to admire the craft. Boris looked almost invincible – a few days ago I tried to think through how you could stop him becoming leader and decided it was almost inconceivable. But Gove picked up the subtlest air of unease about Boris’ character, the presumed disquiet among his supporters, and struck out of nowhere before anyone had guessed he was a threat. Frank Underwood has nothing on this man.
But that is all in the past. The question that matters now is who (among the survivors) is going to actually win this contest and become the next Prime Minister. Today has shown that making predictions in the morning is a good way to look like a fool before lunchtime; but it’s a shame not to speculate.
The first thing to say is that the ancient rule of Tory leadership contests has been proven true. The favourite always falls. It’s almost like they’ve got a statue out back of a god that can only be pacified with the blood of the frontrunner. Osborne went; now BoJo’s had to go. Will the curse strike again?
My suspicion is not, and for three reasons:
Time is short. Tory MPs pick their two favourites on 7th July, who are then guaranteed to go forward to a whole-party vote. Barring anything miraculous (bastard love-child now working for ISIS), there isn’t much time for anything dramatic to happen.
Theresa May isn’t a politician who screws things up. She’s survived as Home Secretary – the graveyard of British politics – for six years with barely a scratch. While cutting police numbers. She doesn’t do ‘mistakes’.
What’s left of the field consists of Gove and a bunch of no-hopers. Andrea Leadsom is politics for Leavers who thought Boris was too exciting; Liam Fox and his supporters are there to make the DUP look progressive; while Stephen Crabb was put on earth to make you realise that Peak Beard has been and gone.
But it’s only a suspicion. There’s one big factor still to be accounted for. Gove, now busy rinsing the blood off his polyurethane apron, stole enough of Boris’ outlying support base to make his candidacy untenable. But there’s still a vote, ‘Core-Boris’ if you like, who have invested six-plus years of hope into the man and are currently are stumbling round in a shattered mess. A Boris endorsement in the next few days could make a big difference to some candidates.
On the assumption that this is not going to Gove, and is not worth much to May, the person to whom this is most valuable is Andrea Leadsom. It also has the satisfaction of being the best way to get Gove off of the top-two, making sure he doesn’t get the crown. But Andrea Leadsom’s USP was that she was an unshowy, highly competent woman. Theresa May now owns that patch of ground, and won’t be giving it up.
In hindsight, the story of the past few years has been of people underestimating Theresa May. I’m as guilty of this as anyone – on Friday morning, I was rating her chances as being close to zero given her invisible role in the debate and her expendable position in the Cabinet. But she was ready, organised, patient and able to communicate exactly the right kind of steely confidence. I quietly wonder if Gove would have stabbed Boris had he known she would go down so well later that day.
There is the business of the party vote, but that feels like a formality. Your choice is between a blood-soaked assassin who knifed lovable Boris and is so popular in the country that back in 2011 the town of Lewes burnt him in effigy; or the woman who no one really knows, but thinks they can trust to do what’s needed for the country. It doesn’t feel like a fair contest.
If I’m right, then I think it’s game, set and match to the lady in the heels, stepping unsullied through the bloodbath to claim her prize; and Britain has its second female prime minister.