Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Harder They Come

Like the EU referendum before it, this general election has been called because of pressures within the Conservative Party. The Tories' current opinion poll lead is necessary to the decision, just as polls predicting a remain victory were to Cameron's, but this is less opportunism by May, a politician not noted for risk-taking, than necessity born of vulnerability. I had assumed the window of opportunity for the Prime Minister to call an early general election would close with the invocation of Article 50. Once the deed was done, momentum would take over and the government would have a relatively free hand till 2019. Two things have altered this situation. First, the "hardness" of the government's stance has increased the likelihood of a rebellion by centrist Tories, other than Kenneth Clarke, while the shrill attitude of the Brexit "ultras", reflected in the tabloid press, has limited Theresa May's room for manoeuvre. Circumstances have pulled the Conservative Party in opposite directions. Second, once it became clear that the "divorce terms" would take up most of the 24-month negotiation period, the danger of a 2020 general election falling at a sensitive moment - the UK out of the EU, with a costly settlement and nothing to show in respect of a trade deal - became too great to discount.

With a small Commons majority of 16 (which could conceivably have become even smaller if the investigations into 2015 election fraud led to by-election defeats in Tory seats), the May government cannot afford the risk of even a modest-scale backbench rebellion, which means today's announcement is an admission that the strategy of side-lining the Commons cannot hold without a larger majority that could absorb the strain of dissent. Contrary to her claims about a troublesome opposition, the prime minister's chief fear is that she might be undermined by her own side. This may mean she anticipates compromises with the EU27 that are likely to prompt a rebellion by the ultras, or perhaps a harsher outcome that would be likely to prompt rebellion by centrists (a mixture of the two is quite possible). That she wants the election conducted during the "phoney war" period, before substantive negotiations with the EU27 get underway, indicates that she seeks not only popular confirmation of her authority as Prime Minister but a carte blanche as regards the progress of Brexit. Don't expect much in the way of a domestic manifesto.

The aim of the election is therefore to grow the number of loyalist Tory MPs to the point where she can command a majority regardless of dissent at the margins. The risk is that a new intake might include more potential rebels, so we may see bloody selection battles in certain constituencies with candidates of strong principle being marginalised by loyalists (there is clearly no way back for Douglas Carswell). Apart from the irony of selection battles turning out to be more significant in the Conservative Party than Labour, this also means that the idea of personal loyalty to the party leader is becoming paramount. What we are witnessing is not merely an authoritarian turn in style, which could be attributed to the personality of the Prime Minister, but the institutional evolution of a presidential and plebiscitary system. While you could find hints of this in the behaviour of previous British PMs, notably Thatcher and Blair, these were expressions of ego rather than political dynamics, and they tended to prompt scorn.

Margaret Thatcher may have been an instinctive authoritarian who divided the world into "them" and "us", but she went too far when she equated loyalty to herself with loyalty to the party, prompting her defenestration. May has gone further and equated herself with the "national interest". Given her previous position on the EU, this is chutzpah of Vicar of Bray proportions. 2017 will be the first general election fought on the basis that we should willingly hand authority to an individual to do with as she sees fit: "Brexit means whatever I say it means".  Previous prime minister's have fought for re-election on the slogan, "Give me the tools to finish the job", but at least we had a reasonable idea of what they meant by that "job". The often sphinx-like May has been reluctant to allow herself to be pinned down, has resorted to pious platitudes when asked to articulate a vision, and has shown a prickly anger towards any who have questioned her competence or sincerity.

We assume that dictatorship presupposes charisma, the ability to sway the crowd, but a querulous, narrow-minded snob is just as likely to lead us down that path. Dictatorship is usually a product of the bureaucracy of executive government rejecting restraint, not a populist insurgency. While Theresa May isn't as advanced along the road of elective dictatorship as Viktor Orban or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, she has started to emulate them stylistically with her claims that the nation is uniting behind her and that her personal values are those of the nation as a whole. It is a short step to then claim that you embody the will of the people, or at least smile graciously as your epigones shout it in the press. Many have noted the negative impact that Brexit is having on the calibre of government, from hogging the legislative bandwidth to disrupting the civil service, but the more worrying impact is on the structure of government, notably the further centralisation of power in Number 10 and the disregard for Parliamentary oversight.

Key to an increased Tory majority will be getting the stay-at-homes who drifted away after 1997 but returned for the referendum to turn out again. This means making the general election a de facto second referendum, but without suggesting that Brexit can be reversed. In other words, scream if you want to go faster. The danger is that some of these backwoods reactionaries may believe the job already done, and could either turn their attention to other domestic issues, which could help Labour, or lapse back into abstention. UKIP will probably be battered, but the assumption that their votes will largely head to the Tories may prove ill-founded. Again, what will matter is the number that choose abstention, particularly in marginals. The LibDems are predictably chipper, on the grounds that the only way is up from their near-death experience in 2015, but a Brexit-flavoured election will not help them recover seats in the South West that voted leave, while there are too few seats like Richmond-on-Thames to provide a remainer surge.

Though most pundits are busy writing-off Labour, it is worth noting a few ironies that may lead to them performing better than expected. The anti-Corbyn crowd in the PLP know that disloyalty doesn't win votes in a general election, so they will have to get behind the party manifesto if not the leader. The media will still stir and goad, but the limited air-time accorded Labour will inevitably shift away from plots to policies, simply because the usual suspects will not be able to oblige. Parliament will be dissolved on the 3rd of May, the day before the local council elections, which means that the raft of policies outlined recently for that campaign, from free school meals to a £10 minimum wage, will provide a solid base for the general election manifesto. These policies are also likely to get more of an airing as the media treat the council elections as an undercard to the Parliamentary election, rather than just the latest chapter in the Corbyn story (no matter how bad the result in May is, the leader isn't going to change before the June poll).

Given that Theresa May clearly isn't a gambler, it is hard to believe that the result in June will deliver anything other than an increased Tory majority, though it could well be smaller than the 100+ seats that current opinion polling suggests. In terms of protecting her back, she probably needs a buffer of at least 50 MPs, so a relatively poor result for the Conservative Party, i.e. one in which they take fewer than 30 seats from Labour, would still be enough to consolidate May's position and provide her with sufficient assurance to allow her to trim the sails of the good ship Brexit as she sees fit. Of course, this doesn't rule out the prospect of a spectacular cock-up between now and 2022 that might make such calculations redundant, but it also doesn't rule out the possibility of May carrying out an executive coup if she thinks the ship is heading for the rocks. A night of the long knives, in which Messrs Davis, Johnson and Fox are sacrificed, would cement her authority, and I suspect that maintaining authority is ultimately the prime directive for this prime minister.


  1. Herbie Kills Children18 April 2017 at 19:28

    This makes total sense for the Tories, New Labour will be trounced! Though our electoral system never ceases to amaze me!

    Theresa May has had a veritable free ride since becoming leader, with the so called free press acting as her PR company, she has been presented as the steely global stateswoman not afraid to take on the EU bureaucrats for the good of Britannia rather than the hideous creature of callous cruelty straight from the 19th century that she is. If I were doing an horror film today May would make the perfect analogy.

    On the other hand the so called free press have presented Corbyn as the clownish and dangerous fool stuck in a time warp and threatening the very existence of Britannia and its marvelous citizens.

    And mark my words, I know you guys love on a parallel planet to me where there is no cultural crisis, the media portrayal has been swallowed hook line and sinker by the servile and docile masses and with it surely the end of Labour as a party capable of being credibly supported by the left

    1. The masses aren't as homogenous as you suggest. Indeed, the idea that they are is a media construct. I'm not suggesting Labour will win on this occasion, but I do think they'll do better than expected.

      The Tories & media will make this a Brexit vote of confidence (the liberal media in order to rubbish Corbyn), but that means the debate will be backward-looking. I suspect many among "the masses" are up for a more forward-looking debate. The precedent here is 1945.

      Btw, "Love on a Parallel Planet" sounds like a great SF novel. You should write it.

    2. Herbie Kills Children19 April 2017 at 12:47

      Well the masses come in all shapes and sizes and a variety of backgrounds but they all exist in the same culture and without wishing to sound like Stalin on the national question, all share certain culturally created ideas, many of which are created via very well resourced ruling class organisations. Corbyn will not make headway because the common currency, perpetuated ad nausea by a brainwashing media, is that Corbyn is a clown. The fact is the ruling class are not wrong to divert lots of resources to conditioning people because it works time and time again. It is part of the delusion in the West that people are free thinking and not a product of the system they inhabit.

      I remember a Keynesian economic critique of Thatcherism or her brand of so called free market capitalism which argued that it led to homogeneity, at least in commodities because each supplier would tend to produce what is demanded. Now ignoring the holes in that argument I think homogeneity is a factor of any society, especially one that views its masses as worker consumers. The advertising industry is built on the idea of homogeneity of thought, even if it likes to give the appearance of choice.

      I think the belief that the masses are not homogenous on some level is to look at the exceptions and not the rule, and is probably a result of the cultural norms that the system creates. We are free to choose, free to consume, we are free in every way!

      Love on a Parallel Planet does indeed sound like an interesting idea, but I am too busy writing the script about an hideous creature of callous cruelty that has remained dormant in the seas around Eastbourne since the late 19th century but has now awakened to bring terror to the poor, the weak and the unfortunate, the twist is that the monster, wrongly believed dead, is being cheered on by all and sundry! Can our buffoonish hero save the day?

    3. The media insist this will be a contest about leadership. Let's agree. Labour don't need to convince the mass to vote for Corbyn but against May. There's an obvious reason why she wont do a TV debate. She is, as you note, repulsive to many.

      Labour should make this a debate over her trustworthiness. She flipped on the EU and her unity rhetoric falls apart under the slightest pressure.

    4. Listening to her babble inanities to Nick Robinson on Today this morning, she should be the main focus of Opposition attacks. She will try to keep out of any serious discussion - see how this evening she addressed a purely party crowd in Bolton and took no questions. This is how the campaign will go. The Opposition needs to nail her down.

      The fact that ITV (and BBC2?) will do debates is encouraging. Can she face down being empty chaired? If she doesn't appear, then all sides have carte blanche to hammer her.

    5. Ben Philliskirk20 April 2017 at 09:37

      I'm not sure. She aspires to be an elected monarch. Monarchy loses its lustre if it has to justify its existence. Plus, she will remain 'above' all that petty party-political squabbling that debate and discussion involves. We could well see over 50% of the English electorate vote against democracy and politics. Without the US constitution's checks and balances, May will have substantially more decision-making power and autonomy than Trump.

    6. Precisely. Labour's best hope is to run a twin-track strategy emphasising post-Brexit material concerns + dangers of an elective dictatorship. This stands a chance both of appealing to Labour's "two tribes" (a media construct, but they need to play the media game to a degree) and to other non-Tories who want to clip May's wings.

    7. Herbie Kills Children20 April 2017 at 18:09

      "Labour's best hope is to run a twin-track strategy emphasising post-Brexit material concerns + dangers of an elective dictatorship."

      But which labour are you talking about here, New Labour which essentially controls the party and sits on the corporate media sofa's or Corbyn's traditional social democratic party which I am told has some web footprint?

      I happened upon Chuka Umunna on Good Morning Britain (don't ask why!) and he couldn't even bring himself to mention Corbyn. I felt like waving a blue rosette under his smug nose and saying, "Here wear that seen as you are fucking campaigning for the Tories".

      Corbyn's weakness, impotence, whatever you want to call it in failing to deal with the back stabbers and the people who in the party who frankly wish he had never been born will come home to roost now. The New Labourites will simply stick the knife in, can you imagine what they will say when a corporate media whore asks them if they think Corbyn will make a good prime minister!

      So Mr Timoney your question really tells me your head is so far into the sand I have somewhere to park my bike!

    8. In a FPTP system, parties are necessarily coalitions. What you need is a manifesto that all sides can support, even if they stress different parts. If Umunna is reluctant to vocally support Corbyn, or a £10 minimum wage, he can at least denounce May.

      I am not deluded enough to think that Labour will win the election, but they can do better than expected if they can broaden the debate. The Blairites need to understand that what is at stake here - elective dictatorship - is more important than their petulant campaign of party disobedience.

    9. Herbie Kills Children20 April 2017 at 20:13

      New Labour was never a broad coalition at all; it was and is a project about narrowing not only the Labour party but politics in general. Obviously that narrow centre can only hold for so long. But if Corbyn has done one thing he has exposed the myth that New Labour is in any way a broad church!

      And mark my words the Tories will be fighting against two entities. What has happened under Corbyn is quite unprecedented in politics, and it will be interesting and depressing watching this strange double headed entity taking on the hideous creature from the 19th century (this script is really progressing), but it can only end one way, total and utter humiliation, which will make one of the heads happy!

  2. Spot on.

    I wonder how much of an impact the Lib Dems can make on some of May's obsessional and less popular domestic policies, which is why May will try to keep clear of them, while making sure they are in the manifesto so that she has her mandate. For example I don't think that grammar schools, which might appeal more to the upwardly mobile "Labour Tories", is very popular in a lot of market towns with memories of little darlings being packed off to the secondary modern. Exactly the kind of market town that might be vulnerable to the Lib Dems.

    But, yes, this decision plays to her obvious deep-seated need to control.

  3. Ben Philliskirk18 April 2017 at 19:58

    I agree entirely.

    I reckon Labour's only electoral hope will be to say to the leavers: 'you wanted to "take back control". If you vote Tory you'll be ceding control completely for the next five years.' I don't think it'll work very well, but the political landscape is highly volatile at the moment and I expect there'll be many crazy results at a constituency level.

  4. Will the French election results have any bearing on the UK's?

  5. With four candidates on about 20% if you take into account the polls margin of error (+/- 3%) any outcome in France is a roll of a dice. So there is a 1 in 6 chance of both Le Pen and Melenchon reaching the second round. This would mean the next president of France wants a Frexit referendum. IMV this would undercut the importance of Brexit and so weaken May and support Corbyn.

    Any other outcome leaves at least one pro EU candidate who would be favourite to win so we would have to wait till May 7th.

    Whatever the outcome the clear message from France is the people want change. This reinforces the message from Trump and Brexit. In the UK May appeals to security and against "chaos". She can however claim to be delivering radical change with Brexit. Corbyn has the correct strategy by running against "the rigged system".

    Whatever happens pressure for change continues to build.

    I would hope to see European Governments start to ignore the Stability and Growth Pact 3% deficit ceiling and trying to spend more to generate some decent growth.

    1. In the unlikely event of Melenchon or Le Pen winning the presidency, they would lack a majority in the National Assembly, so Frexit (or any other major divergence from recent policy) is a non-starter unless they can also conjure a victory in the legislative elections in June. Given the French use of a two-round system for deputies, this is highly improbable (e.g. the FN only secured 2 seats in 2012).

      Paradoxically, such an uneasy cohabitation would strengthen the PS and Les Republicains. Conversely, a win for Macron or Fillon would put pressure on either the left or right in the Assembly to align with the Elysee.

      The electorate may well want change, but the most likely outcome of their voting will be the pseudo-change of Macron.