When I was a boy, and first getting my head around the idea of government, I learnt that the Prime Minister was in charge of the country. If they said something, we would have to do it.
At the age of six-ish, this was all that was needed to temporarily knock dinosaur hunter off the top of my list of career ambitions. But having spent years on the fringes of government, I’ve learnt that the underlying assumption is deeply untrue. The PM really doesn’t decide everything. And, after the past 72 hours, it seems fairly clear that the PM will now decide nothing.
Practically-minded civil servants won’t spend long grieving this. This isn’t for political reasons – but one of the least reported characteristics of government is its way of taking decisions. In the case of Theresa May’s government, that approach would best be likened to trying to get your passport stamped at a Soviet bloc customs post. Despite you thinking everything is in order, you have to wait an age while a surly apparatchik finds fault with you, before grudgingly waving you through, or possibly having you hauled off as a saboteur. This was not intended to win Whitehall’s respect, and didn’t.
Conversely, one of the unsung pleasures of the Coalition was the decision-making body known as the Quad – the two top Tories and two top Lib Dems – who were able to make decisions swiftly, effectively and on behalf of the whole of government.
Now, after the coup that dare not speak its name, we will have a new way of doing business – something that is judged to represent a consensus of the shadowy group that now runs the government. Whether it works any better will be anyone’s guess, but it will mean that Whitehall’s day-to-day operating model has to change once again.
With that done, government’s next question is what the hell to do about Brexit. If anything could have convinced six-year-old me that I didn’t want to be Prime Minister, the next 24 months would have been it.
Over the past day and a half, it has become clear just how badly government is caught by the Brexit trap.
Tory moderates have made a sustained pitch over the weekend that they want a soft Brexit (i.e. retaining access to the single market, and by implication having some kind of free movement of labour). You don’t know how many people this is, but even if you only count the Tories saying this on national television, it’s more than the government’s wafer-thin majority.
But if the government were to flip over to a soft Brexit plan, it would only make things worse. The Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party (aka ‘the bastards’ of John Major’s day) will be equally angry, and would launch a rebellion of their own. That would just as easily leave the government without enough votes to do what they want.
So whatever they choose, the government is outvoted, and probably collapses.
I don’t see how you solve the parliamentary arithmetic on this – it can’t add up either way. Nor is it something the DUP can solve – you need a good 30+ extra votes to stand any chance of winning the battle, whichever side you pick.
People outside of the Tory party have been suggesting that the way forward is to have a cross-party group on the shape of Brexit – a frighteningly grown-up idea that therefore has no place in our constitution whatsoever. But for my money, I can’t see another way of fixing this problem that doesn’t tear the Tory party in two or forces them to a second election – which is exactly what the party grandees are trying to avoid.
We can look forward to the Queen’s Speech with interest. If the government is really lucky, someone will have an answer by then.
It’s now less than 100 hours until the polls open. It’s never too late to say that everything could change – that’s been brutally proven more than once this week. But now is the time to recap on what has happened with the campaign, and what it might mean for Thursday’s result:
When this election began, it looked like it was going to be six weeks of Tories shooting fish in a barrel. Turns out the fish know how to return fire. It is a campaign that the Tories have lost, and Labour by-and-large have won. Had Labour not been coming from so far behind, we might now be talking about Labour as the leading party; but given that six weeks ago we were talking about their potential extinction, they’ve come a hell of a long way.
Compared to our assumptions of a few weeks ago, what has changed?
This hasn’t been the Brexit election. Many of us thought it would be – to the benefit of Theresa May and the Lib Dems. But there has hardly been any serious debate about what Brexit should be like, or what we want our politicians to do about it. Can you describe Labour’s Brexit policy? I know I can’t. I think we’ve all agreed it’s too complicated, and we want to talk about something else – and the winners here have been Labour. (Though there is a silver lining for the Tories – the predicted collapse to the Lib Dems in the South West is no longer on the cards, which puts them up about 10-20 seats on where most people expected them to be).
The shine has come off of Theresa May, and in a big way. The social care climbdown has fatally weakened her with the public, and probably with her own party. We’d had hints of this beforehand (remember Hinkley Point?), but now it’s a permanent part of her reputation. All of that strong-and-stable rhetoric really was leaving a hostage to fortune, and the inability to follow-through makes her and her team look like a bunch of amateurs. Her leadership ratings have lost that new-car smell that they once had.
But Jeremy Corbyn has learnt how to behave. Some unsung hero in Corbyn’s office has got Labour working. The man has spoken clearly, been ready for interviews, stayed on-message and was even seen wearing a tie. Unlike his team, he has remained gaffe-free for six weeks. Never mind that this is the type of safety-first politics that Corbynistas despise – it works, and he’s got his hearing with the public. It may not win the election, but barring upsets it looks like he will have outperformed expectations and will therefore be able to resist ousting by the moderates.
But before you reach any conclusions…
…I can’t help noticing that these stories are all views from inside of the Westminster bubble. If we learnt one thing from the Brexit referendum, it was that votes aren’t decided in Westminster alone. When we didn’t listen to ordinary people on the (provincial) streets, we found ourselves with shock results.
When the campaign began, we were actually getting some good reportage coming from unvisited constituencies up and down the country. Since the omnishambles phase of the campaign got underway, all of that has fallen away, as journalists realised they could earn their pay-packets without leaving Zone 1.
One of the main themes coming through from that earlier reporting was just how unpopular Jeremy Corbyn was on doorsteps up and down the country. I got the impression that he had become the most divisive politician since Margaret Thatcher (and though she won three elections, Corbyn is starting from entirely the wrong base to do the same). There’s no evidence with which to test whether this is changing – but to judge by the reactions I get from my non-London friends, the tighter the result the stronger that distaste becomes.
Selling the pig
Tory election guru Lynton Crosby has a favourite saying – that you can’t fatten a pig on market day. In other words, the things that decide elections don’t happen in the campaign, but in the years that lead up to them.
A lot hinges on whether he’s right. If this election is about the past six weeks, the Tories are in for a deserved pasting. But if it’s about what came before, we could easily be shocked by the scale and scope of a Tory landslide.
Thinking mechanically, I think a lot will depend on the turnout in northern and Midlands seats. Do people who don’t like Corbyn actually vote against him, or just stay at home? You should be able to tell a lot by the first few seats to declare – if there’s a big rise in the total Tory vote, a landslide is on. If the Tory vote is stable, but turnout falls and the Labour vote declines, it means that the anti-Corbyn vote is sitting this out and the Tories are in for a much smaller boost than they hope.
Changing the map
The other factor in play is Labour’s hope of bringing in a generation of disengaged voters to help fix the system. A lot of the recent polling surge for Labour comes from young voters doing just this – saying they are sure to come out and vote, and pushing up Labour numbers.
You can afford to be a bit sceptical here. First off, there’s an old saying that it’s dangerous trying to win a campaign by appealing to non-voters, because they have a habit of not turning out to vote. Second, under a first-past-the-post system it matters a lot where your voters actually are. A lot of young university students can win you seats like Cambridge or Manchester Withington, but they’re sod-all use if you’re trying to hold on to Great Grimsby or Rochdale.
Throwing it all away
And the last thing we can’t account for is just how wrong the government will muck things up this week. One terrorist attack, though tragic on a human scale, allows a PM to appear statesmanlike and commanding. Three is a different story, especially when that PM is an ex-Home Secretary. I wonder how many people are privately asking just how good a job she’s actually doing of keeping us safe, and what that will mean in the voting booth.
So, with only a few hours to go, get in the popcorn, brew up the coffee, and prepare for government.
This election campaign isn’t short on changes. The last time I posted it seemed that nothing could stop the Tories from romping home to victory. Since then, team May has been proving that it is perfectly within their power to turn a landslide into subsidence.
Never mind that the policy was a good ‘un (or, more accurately, the least-worst ‘un) in that it takes wealth from the group who need it least (the dead) to relieve pressure on the overloaded working population. The fact is that if you’re planning to do something like this, you do not under any circumstances do it in the middle of an election campaign. You should not need to be told this.
I’ve been wondering for a while why the Tory campaign was failing to dominate the news cycle. After all, they did call this election and they’re meant to be pitching for a massive popular mandate. But so far the only party that has had a good national-level campaign has been Labour – and with a leader who is meant to be poison.
One hypothesis was that the Tories wanted to give air time to team Corbyn, because that’s the sort of advertising money can’t buy. But I’m coming round to the view that it’s got more to do with the fact that Team May is bloody useless at managing a media campaign.
I don’t actually think this story will have much of an effect on the end result of the campaign. The election is being decided outside of the Westminster bubble, and out there the main fact (at least among the C2DEs whose shift the Tory strategy depends on) is that Jeremy Corbyn is a pillock who should be allowed no closer to Number 10 than is required to take out the non-confidential bins.
But I do think this should concern people who watch government for the long term. Number 10 is run by a very small clique of people who Theresa May trusts. This mess-up has been placed at the door of Nick Timothy, the most influential member of May’s coterie. Such a public emballsage seriously weakens his power and standing. Plenty of people want to take him down, but if he disappears there’s an honest question whether anyone else can take his space inside May’s bunker. Once a team like that falls apart, the PM either has to change her way of working, or her colleagues will quickly hunt around for a better option.
They say the Tory party is an absolute monarchy punctuated by periods of regicide. Failure is not something that is long-tolerated in a Conservative leader. Right now, there’s no chance of anyone threatening the PM. But based on the past few days, one or two people will be remembering to oil their daggers.
If you’re a Tory, this has been a good 48 hours. It’s not going to be often that you look at the electoral results for Teesside and see ‘Conservative gain’ next to it. I imagine it kindles the same sort of feeling an old friend of mine would have got from seeing Surrey vote in the Socialist Workers.
Indeed it’s almost impossible to find a gloomy angle on yesterday from a Tory perspective:
The Tories have penetrated deep, deep into Labour heartlands. If they can win council seats in East Glasgow, there is literally nowhere that they’re not cutting through.
Good campaigning will not help their enemies. Sion Simon was a good candidate for West Mids mayor, but still he lost, in an area with a 2015 lead of about 9 points.
Contrary to my earlier expectations, the Lib Dem pull doesn’t outclass that of the Tories. They lost seats overall.
And most dramatically of all, UKIP lost every council seat it was defending, and picked up only one new one. That means their total haul was smaller than that of the Cornish independence party Mebyon Kernow. All the benefits of this run to the Tories.
Against that, it would be futile to pretend that the Tories aren’t heading for a three-figure landslide. It would also be silly to pretend Labour isn’t heading for a historically dreadful result – one of those yardsticks used by television pundits when they want a ‘worst since X’ comparison.
Labour’s near-death experience
Notwithstanding this, the results from the local elections make me cast my mind forward five years. If it’s obvious that Labour is about to lose badly now, what happens afterwards? Is the Labour party about to enter a death spiral, or not?
For me, I think not. It’s tempting to sketch out the final demise of a party which has fundamentally lose touch with the British public – but if you look at the results, this is not the case. Even in yesterday’s shock Tory wins, some of those results were very close. A 2% swing would have turned West Mids, Teesside and West of England into Labour victories – and I’m willing to bet the depressive power of Jeremy Corbyn is substantially larger than that.
If you want to imagine the end of the Labour party, it isn’t enough to say that the party loses votes – it has to lose its status as the real opposition. It can happen – it has been happening in Scotland since 2014 – but it’s not happening in England. The coming general election looks like being a very extreme example of a conventional election, and not one of those elections (like Canada in 2011, for example) where the rules of the game fundamentally altered.
If you assume that Labour comes to its senses after the election, it has a lot of ground to make up. But equally, it has a lot of voters who are primed to listen, and where Labour remains well-placed to win. It will take more than one electoral cycle to repair the damage of this, but unless there is an alternative opposition Labour’s decline has to bottom out at some point. I’d argue they can’t scrape much lower than this.
Tories should enjoy this moment. Right now, they are achieving results which match the faith of their footsoldiers, rather than any expert’s rulings of what is and is not ‘possible’. It would be unkind to begrudge them such a moment. But I wouldn’t expect it to become business as usual.
At the weekend, I sat down with a cup of tea, and tried to figure out why I was wrong. After too many elections where I, like the rest of the herd, expected a wholly different outcome, it felt sensible to assess my likely mistakes before I actually made them.
My post last Tuesday was based on a handful of assumptions:
The Tories are in a strong place, have momentum behind them and can be expected to pick up seats.
The Lib Dems have even more fire in their bellies, and had an unusually bad result last time. That gives them a double potential to gain seats, which is likely to be more powerful than what the Tories can muster (at least in the seats the Lib Dems choose to target).
Labour is doing very badly, and is unlikely to field a good campaign. They will be losing seats, not taking them.
But Labour also has a strong reserve of support that never seems to go away no matter how badly they do.
And all of these points apply better to England (excluding London) than they do to the rest of the UK.
Assumptions one to three look fairly sound. But I am left wondering about numbers four and five.
Listen for the dog whistle
It was while I was reflecting on this that I listened again to the PM’s election announcement. There was one section which everyone picked up on in the media coverage:
“The country is coming together, but Westminster is not. In recent weeks Labour has threatened to vote against the deal we reach with the European Union. The Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standsill. The Scottish National Party say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain’s membership of the European Union. And unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”
Now, the Tories have retained the services of the legendary Lynton Crosby – a man famed for making dog-whistle appeals to voters’ basic instincts. I would expect this message to have been well-crafted. And the message that’s coming through is that the Tories are being opposed by everyone – Labour, Liberals, Lords – in their desire to deliver the Brexit that people have agreed on. Or to put it simply, the PM and the Tories are actually the opposition, arrayed against a set of old establishment cronies.
If that’s intentional, it’s interesting, because it links up with one of the subtler trends in the last election.
Where Tories fear to tread
There’s an established narrative that there are some seats that no opposition party will take. Labour is not about to win Saffron Walden (57.2% Con); the Tories won’t take Knowsley (78% Lab) unless something truly strange occurs. There are seats that haven’t changed hands since Labour first won them off the Liberals nearly a century ago.
If you look at those Labour certainties, though, you find a quirk. Though the Labour share of the vote didn’t change much in 2015, there was a dramatic change in what happened with two other parties – Lib Dem and UKIP.
I’ve picked out a random selection – the same trend was repeated over and over. Up to 2010, the Lib Dems were the alternative to Labour across the North. The coalition years blew that apart, especially in the north where cuts hit hardest. In 2015, there was a remarkable similarity between what the Lib Dems used to get in vote share, and what UKIP picked up.
You shouldn’t run to the conclusion that these are the same people – it will be more complex. But it makes me think that there’s a ‘plague on both your houses’ vote in the north, which refuses to vote Labour or Tory, and which could be as much as 20% of the electorate in some constituencies. And these are the constituencies that the Tories have to win to get that comfortable majority.
I’d drawn the conclusion that safe northern seats stay Labour because there really is no other alternative – the Lib Dems are now toxic; UKIP are incompetent and the Tories are Tories and there the thought process stops. But what if Brexit finally breaks that mental barrier, and makes northern voters decide to overcome their parents’ prejudices? What if people now think the way to do over the system is to aid Theresa May in getting Brexit to work? And if so, what’s to say that this process stops in the north – why not Wales and Scotland too?
Fuck the system – I’m voting Tory!
If this is what the PM is trying to do, you have to admire her chutzpah. Trying to brand the Tories as the anti-establishment rebels, when they’ve managed to get 175+ seats in every election since the First Reform Act, is a bit like packaging Robert Mugabe as a respected financial consultant.
But Brexit makes strange truths. And if those people who used to vote Lib Dem, or used to vote UKIP, because it was their way of speaking out against the system suddenly find themselves represented by Tory party, that really could shake up the electoral landscape.
I ran a quick check – what happens if the Tories were able to take most of the UKIP vote (which I take as a proxy for dissatisfied voters) in every constituency? If UKIP polled no higher than 3%, and the rest all turned blue, then 58 Labour seats would go Tory. That’s before a single Labour voter changes their own vote or stays at home, to show their distaste for Corbyn. The list includes Rother Valley, where Labour has almost a 10,000 majority.
This is a bit of a statistical fiction – most of the ‘screw you’ voters are probably staying home on election day. But it makes me realise that there is the potential for quite a spectacular outcome – one where the Tories genuinely channel an unrepresented section of the electorate (like Trump), and where Labour is left flailing. The result might be more of a one-off than a grand political realignment, but it would mean that a three figure majority would easily be possible.
This morning, no work was done in Whitehall. From about 10:30 until 12:00, the day was given over to speculation, gossip and armchair psephology. Was she calling an election? What was the significance of the lectern not having the Downing Street crest? It was either that, or start tearing up our work-plans on a speculative basis.
Most people are sick of elections; not least the PM. You got the sense that she really had intended to avoid this. But ultimately, there comes a time when the open goal in front of you is impossible to ignore. Many’s the person who judged Gordon Brown on the basis that he could have gone to the country in 2007 and won, but didn’t – forever after he was Bottler Brown.
And life for Theresa May is not going to be easy. She may have no opposition, but with a majority of 14 she is at the mercy of every crank and crackpot in her own party. If the story turned against her (and it almost certainly would, given how tough Brexit will be), every assessment of her failure would end with the words ‘if only she’d called an early election…’.
This looks like an election no one can lose. But…
If you’re in the Tory Party, you’ve never had it so good. The poll leads here require Borisisms to capture their magnificence – whopping; ginormous; stonking – up to twenty percentage points according to some pollsters. It shouldn’t be possible to lose an election from a start like that – anything less than an absolute massacre would look like a failure.
But don’t get carried away. This may be a lot closer than it first appears. Let’s take a look at the seats with the smallest majorities in 2015.
It’s fair to say that Chris Matterson, Labour MP for City of Chester with a majority of 93, will be spending the campaign polishing his CV. Indeed, the Tories need to go a lot further than this list if they’re going to claim victory. But note a few quirks in this list:
A lot of these seats with small majorities are already Conservative. In 2015, the Tories were really good at targeting the marginal voters that matter. Winning a lot of seats means overturning a lot of majorities in the 1,000-3,500 range – definitely doable, but not simple.
A lot of these Labour seats are in areas that voted remain – especially London. London hasn’t followed the rules in the last few elections. Indeed, if someone wants to have a bet over whether Wes Streeting will retain Ilford North on a majority of 589, I’ll offer you good odds.
The blue seats aren’t all Labour-Tory marginals. Quite a few of them are Tory-Lib Dem seats, whose dramatic fall to the blues was the shock event of election night 2015. The impression is that this was a one-off, as the Tories played off the fear that a Labour-SNP coalition was in the offing unless people voted for David Cameron. This fear has probably passed by now – and detailed Tory polls apparently suggest the government could lose a lot of these seats.
My instinct says that the government starts the story down about 15-30 Lib Dem seats, and probably won’t win more than two or three seats in London no matter what. That means that they need to collect about 40-50 Labour seats in the north and midlands to come out noticeably ahead.
To put this in context, Copeland – the by-election win a few weeks ago that was seen as a huge victory for the government – was Labour’s 27th most marginal seat. To get up to 40-50 without a lot of London seats, the Tories need to win old mining towns; chunks of post-industrial cities like Stoke and Bolton and Barnsley. To me, that sounds quite hard.
It goes one of three ways…
Fortunately, we’ve been busy testing out the election mechanics that will dominate this general. In a laudable commitment to evidence-based political science, we have had three by-elections that have tested a lot of the factors that will determine the final outcome.
First, we have Copeland. The government is betting the house that this story can be repeated up and down the country. It was an area that had been Labour since 1935, but where no one could remember why. Labour fought a campaign on tested tactics – cuts and the NHS. The Tories made it all about Corbyn, and they won. Not only did they secure a big swing from Labour, but they also drew in a big share of the UKIP vote too. Do that everywhere and they’ll have their dream outcome.
That’s the good news for them. The bad news is Richmond Park. Tories walk in with a majority of 23,000, and go home empty handed. This isn’t just London – this is deepest, darkest Remainia, where people happily fly EU flags outside of their houses. The Lib Dems are working to make sure it isn’t a one-off. It won’t win them a majority, but it can take a lot of seats off of the Tories (Lib-Dem-Labour marginals now being almost totally extinct).
And then there’s Stoke Central. The ‘capital of Brexit’ where Labour fielded a deeply flawed candidate under an atrocious leader, and the UKIP leader still couldn’t pick up the seat. People look at this election and ask if Labour will collapse – but you could ask that question equally of UKIP. A strong UKIP would seal Labour’s defeat – instead, it looks like the party isn’t going to be able to eat into Labour’s old heartlands. That probably puts a floor on how far Labour can drop.
All of that is a lot more complexity than you usually see in a general election. So anyone who says they know the outcome is being very brave.
Stupid prediction time
What do I think? I think the government will do this. To be honest, if the government can’t pick up a seriously increased majority under this situation, when Labour is this badly broken, I think it would be a pretty awful indictment on the democratic system as a whole.
But ask me the question in betting terms, and I think the value is in predicting a hung parliament. Not because it’s likely, but because it’s more likely than you’d think. Labour can only get so battered; I don’t think it’s unbelievable that the Lib Dems could end up with 40-50 seats if luck is with them. And while my base assumption is that the UKIP vote from the last election can be convinced to back the Tories in current circumstances, I’ve never been confident of how much of the UKIP vote is ‘a plague on both your houses’ and therefore not really in play.
That’s what makes this exciting. I have no idea what will happen. Expect May to win – maybe with a majority of 20-50. More than that, she’s done well. Less than that, and she’ll look like Don Quixote on a battlebus. And all the obituaries will end ‘If only she hadn’t called an early election…’
So it’s official. Parliament must vote on Article 50. Lord Neuberger, like some gold-ringed boxing promoter, has confirmed that we are about to enjoy the parliamentary rumble of the century.
The news shouldn’t surprise anyone; the interesting points of law had been decided at the High Court, and this judgment was largely a rubber stamping of sound reasoning. Nor does the judgment itself say anything other than that parliament must vote before article 50 can be triggered – hardly enough to set you on the edge of your seat.
But do not be fooled by this quiet proceduralism. In less than a fortnight, we could see the beginning of the end for Theresa May, the House of Lords and/or the Tory and Labour parties as we know them.
Or not. Probably not, at least in the short term. But we haven’t had a parliamentary vote this significant in three quarters of a century, and what’s at stake is a hell of a lot bigger than membership of the EU.
Let’s start with the basics. What is happening next? Everyone is agreed that parliament will have to vote before Article 50 can be triggered. Government has said that it plans to get this power as soon as possible, probably by a very short bill introduced into parliament next week.
This bill will almost certainly pass the Commons – the question will be whether it gets amended before it does. The government wants a blank cheque in order to act however it chooses. But if the right to trigger is hemmed in with limits, caveats, requirements, reversions, checkpoints and so on then it will probably prove impossible to use.
Then, if it makes it through the Commons, it has to get through the Lords. The Lords don’t have to pass the bill at all; and they can also amend the bill themselves and send it back to the Commons. The Commons then votes on those amendments and so on (a process known as ping-pong) until both houses are agreed. Or, quite possibly, not.
In order for Theresa May to meet her deadline of March, this process has to be completed in about 8 weeks. The parliamentary process can run that fast; but if you can’t get an underlying agreement then it can’t be forced to a conclusion until a year has elapsed.
So the three things you have to watch here are:
Who’s with me?
You can reduce the calculations in the Commons to two variables:
How split is the Labour vote? Do they really put their weight behind a set of amendments?
How many Tories risk dire vengeance by voting for the amendments?
Loosely speaking, if Labour tries some concerted opposition and convinces about 20 Tories to rebel, plus one extra for each rebel of their own, then the government will lose.
The numbers here are anyone’s guess. Most MPs backed remain, including all-but-ten Labour MPs. But the reality of the referendum result will not be lost on them; and nor will the pressure of their own leadership not to look at odds with public opinion. That goes double for the government side.
Many MPs will also realise their vote isn’t going to be forgotten. A whole generation of Labour politicians were judged by how they voted on Iraq; this will equally totemic. Do you want to be the one who defied the will of the British people and betrayed the 52%? Or do you feel that the PM’s lurch to a hard Brexit has broken the link with popular sovereignty altogether, and risks damning the country to economic collapse?
And then there’s revenge. There are definitely 20 Tory MPs who, to put it crudely, wouldn’t piss on Theresa May if she was on fire. They know that if she loses this vote then she is grievously wounded. This group is less reliable – they will pay a very heavy price for treachery – but equally this is the best chance they’ll have to get even. Watch what happens with some of George Osborne’s best friends, particularly if the process drags on.
The question looks different again in the Lords. Here, the government is a stonking 300 peers short of a majority, and even those peers that it does have are far more remain-inclined (and far less beholden to the PM) than MPs. The only thing that can ensure a clear passage here is fear of undermining the whole democratic process (something that hasn’t traditionally bothered our upper house), which brings peers into line.
I suspect that the level of support in both houses depends on what sort of question you are asking, which brings us onto…
What the hell are you doing?
The government wants to do this quick and fast, and with the minimum amount of debate possible. The plan goes something like this:
The PM set out a clear twelve point plan for Brexit. That’s all the plan you need, and asking for anything more is asking for things the UK can’t promise.
Democratic accountability demands that Parliament get out of the way of the referendum result.
Behind the scenes, the whips make clear that this is not an area where rebellion of any kind will be forgiven.
If the House of Lords gets in the way, let them know that the much-delayed abolition of the House could finally happen if they are so flagrantly out of line with the views of the people.
That would be an easy plan for a government with a 100+ majority; our government has a majority of 16.
Instinctively, I don’t think the ‘no negotiation’ strategy is likely to work. Parliament hasn’t had a big Brexit debate, and every bloody MP will want their thoughts to be on the record. That stands against discipline. There are also some points on which I think you can get an easy majority for amendment – guaranteeing continued rights for EU nationals living in the UK, for example. And once you’ve got one amendment, the floodgates are open.
Balanced against this though is that there doesn’t appear to be much of an alternative. No alternative leadership (despite the Lib Dems’ best efforts); no idea of what the likely amendments might be. Government has been pretty slick in terms of presenting a joined up and disciplined message on its plans. By contrast, the letter at the weekend that 46 Labour MPs sent to the PM read like a list of demands from a student debating society.
So it will all come down to a frantic battle for the support of individual members over the next week or so. For the moment, I think odds favour the government; but that could be reversed by one well-placed speech.
You want it when!?
The other thing worth noting is that the government is on a timetable; the amenders are not. If Theresa May can’t get a deal by March, she’s seen as having failed. This is the other weakness of the force-it-through approach, particularly given the delaying power of the Lords.
This would naturally push you towards finding a compromise. But government is taking an approach that makes compromise structurally almost impossible. It isn’t obvious how those two are resolved by anything short of total victory.
And if I don’t…?
No one is yet asking whether losing this vote means the government falls. Historically, it would have; though there’s not exactly a lot of precedent here.
I don’t think the wrong amendments would force the PM to step down – it’s not quite a direct enough repudiation (though outright losing the vote would be different). But the government does have in its back pocket the threat to turn the whole question into a confidence vote, and thereby potentially trigger a general election.
A general election would both solve the government’s majority problem, and also give it the right to overrule the Lords (the Lords traditionally does not impede any measure in a winning party’s election manifesto). It’s a clear platform on which to go to the country, and few Labour MPs will want an election with polls being where they are. Government is far better-placed to thrive in an election than its opponents.
But if you’ve got to the point of holding an election, the Tories already have rebellions in their own ranks. This turns a family quarrel into a shooting war, and almost certainly forces the rebels to find a new, permanent allegiance. If the election is only about one thing, it also risks uniting the opposition into a single team – which would be catastrophic for the longer term.
There comes a point at which you have to give up prediction and get out the popcorn. The next few weeks might just see the start of the biggest political shake-up since the 1910s, or even the 1840s. And it could well depend, not on the great flows of impersonal social factors, but the tongues and minds of individual parliamentarians.
Maybe 2016 was just the warm-up act for a real year of revolution…
Waking up this morning, and hearing the results of the by-election in Richmond Park, I had my first warm feelings about democracy for a long time. Setting aside the wider politics, as a local I have been wanting to see the back of Zac Goldsmith for many years – and finally my neighbours have agreed with me. Next time, Zac, show up in Parliament and do your job.
But it’s the wider story that really matters. This is a really, really important by-election result. First, a bit of context for those who haven’t been watching closely:
Richmond Park is historically a Lib-Dem/Conservative marginal. Zac Goldsmith had held the seat for the Tories since 2010.
Zac resigned in the wake of the decision to build a new runway at Heathrow, as he’d promised to do at the general election.
The Conservative party, after some deliberation, decided not to put up a candidate against him. UKIP and the Greens also both stood aside – UKIP because Zac was a Brexit backer, the Greens because they wanted to give the Lib Dems the best run at victory.
So the contest boiled down to a Zac-Lib Dem contest, with Zac standing in for the government.
And Zac got a thumping. A 23,000 vote majority vanished in one go, and the seat turns yellow.
On the back of that, you can now rule out an early general election.
Why? The only reason that the Tories have a majority in parliament at all is that they took 24 Lib Dem seats across the south. Without those, they stand virtually no chance of holding a majority in the house. While some of those are probably lost to the Lib Dems for good, if a 23,000 seat majority isn’t safe then some are definitely in play. And for each one that’s lost they need to take another seat in what has historically been seen as Labour’s heartland.
Not only that, but the Lib Dems have shown that they are the political lightning rod for the hardcore Remain voters. If anything, that’s a bigger problem for the government. Not because these people can carry many constituencies; but because under a first past the post system a few thousand votes in the wrong place can play merry hell with a candidate’s majority. If many of those Remainers were previously voting Conservative (as they were in Richmond), they can be added to the pile of people who are just generally voting against the government. It would take just 1,800 well-placed Tory voters across the country switching to the Lib Dems to wipe out the government’s majority – even though they wouldn’t win a single seat for themselves.
Theresa May’s caution already meant she passed up a general election when she looked guaranteed to win; now, when she’s likely to lose, she will certainly bottle it.
(There is one caveat here – the same logic applies in reverse if the Tories are fully allied with UKIP, and UKIP tell their voters to back the government. I’ll come back to this ‘unholy alliance’ option on another occasion).
But if there is no election, then the parliamentary maths just got that bit nastier – the working majority goes down to 13. Now, you only need seven grumpy Tory MPs to hold the government to ransom – coincidentally the same number of Secretaries of State that Theresa May sacked from the cabinet on coming to power. And, on the back of the Richmond result, the critics will feel bolder.
If you want to get a preview of what this will look like, the Garrick theatre has just put on a revival of the play This House, about how the 1974 Labour government bled itself to death as its majority ticked down ever closer to zero. It’s great theatre. It’s going to make fascinating current affairs.
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.
There is one moment when the British political system demonstrates its total superiority over the rest of the world. Only in our country, plus a few direct descendants, could two men be PM and Chancellor one day, and be unable to get an inside table at a local bakery the next. Normally that kind of descent takes either months or handcuffs.
My own predictions for the Cabinet may not have been spectacularly perspicacious – though I take a certain pleasure for having been as accurate as both Robert Peston and Iain Dale, and a whole day earlier. And the source of the error was misreading how the need to Brexit-up the cabinet would be resolved – not by putting a lightweight into May’s own Home Office, but by handing over the Foreign Office to a Brexiteer. And also leaving Osborne’s severed head out for the birds.
If you want to characterise this reshuffle, there are two points I’d draw out:
This is a cabinet built for Brexit. Having a Brexit-heavy team means that May has quite a mandate with the Leavers, implicitly, for whatever deal emerges. Tory Brexiteers would have been able to shout ‘fix’ if a Remainer team had stitched together a deal that put the Single Market first and quietly forgot about restricting freedom of movement. But with Boris, Fox and Davis in charge, they can’t say it’s been done to them. Plus, there isn’t really anyone to lead the fight back.
May has eliminated almost all current rivals. Only non-threatening leadership contenders have been allowed near power: Andrea Leadsom (Keeping Up Appearance’s answer to Sarah Palin) at the Department of Bovine Misery and the reanimated corpse of Boris Johnson as minister for all the bits of the Foreign Office that don’t matter. Osborne, Gove and Morgan – three actual threats – are as far from power as they can be thrown. The top team are a bunch of political emasculates with no significant backing within the party without the backing to launch a coup, so a leadership challenge from within the Cabinet looks very unlikely.
This configuration makes me fairly confident that May means what she says when she says no early election and no second referendum. She’s built one of the few cabinets that could actually do an EU deal without needing to secure some kind of extra mandate. I hadn’t thought such a thing was possible.
But before you get carried away with the brilliance of this – beware two weaknesses.
First off, ruthlessness isn’t without its consequences.
This is not Game of Thrones, where you throw the bodies of your defeated rivals into a ditch. When you fire George Osborne, you’re effectively inviting him to spend more time plotting his vengeance upon you.
Macmillan could carry out the Night of the Long Knives because he had a majority of close to a hundred. May has a majority of sixteen, which drops to fifteen when they elect Jo Cox’s replacement in a few weeks.
She’s betting heavily that Osborne and Gove were backed by shallow careerists who will melt away now they are powerless. That’s not a given. Even the ministerial sackings make up enough people to make her majority meaningless, when the right moment comes – and while I don’t think she’ll lose anything totemic, I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few months’ time she finds herself getting frequently frustrated on small things and looking subtly less in control.
And then, there’s weakness number two.
Boris is a disaster waiting to happen, at least in the political sense. May had no choice but to put a Brexiteer here, and there were almost no alternatives whatsoever. When Boris cocks up (and cock up he will, for reasons that seem almost Pavlovan) there is the question of who fills his place.
There are only three choices from the Leaver ranks. I think May might have put Priti Patel in at DfID for precisely this reason – so she has a replacement for Boris ready to go with some international experience. Unfortunately, Patel is famously undiplomatic in her nature and far from an ideal choice. Neither Grayling nor Leadsom look like they are up to the job. So where can you go?
I think the logic takes you back round to George Osborne (for the contacts) or Michael Gove (for the Leave credentials). But whereas it would have looked magnanimous to appoint either now, it will look weak in a year or two’s time, if it’s on the back of a Boris resignation.
In terms of Leave-Remain, it’s an extremely clever reshuffle. But in purging the Osborne/Cameron set at the same time, she’s chosen to play for high stakes. The government needs plenty of successes before the recession hits, the negotiations bite or Boris explodes. The clock is ticking.