Sunday, 24 March 2019

Leaving the Lectern

One thing we can say with confidence is that yesterday's "Put it to the People" march will have little impact. The 2003 "Stop the War" march also failed in its objective, but it proved consequential in helping to shift public opinion towards a greater scepticism about both the integrity of the state and the honesty and motivations of New Labour. This wasn't an overnight conversion but one of a number of incidents on a steady, descending path that commenced with the disappointments of the first Blair administration and ended with the exhaustion of Gordon Brown's premiership, the latter including the concession of the Chilcott Inquiry into the prosecution of the Iraq War that would eventually prove the 2003 marchers to have been justified. In contrast, not only will the Commons almost certainly reject a motion for a second referendum next week, but the low opinion of both Theresa May's competence and the British state's capability has been priced-in for many months. That supporters of the march are focusing their energies on claiming it was bigger than the 2003 demo is a sign of its inconsequentiality, not its significance.

The real story of the weekend is that the Conservative Party has decided that Theresa May's time as Prime Minister is up, with rumours of a mass cabinet walkout on Monday if she doesn't agree to resign. A dozen or so walking a few yards is more likely to break the political logjam than a million marching a mile. That said, Tory coups, like Tory rebellions, are rarer than popular history imagines, and objectively May could face this one down after the failure of the parliamentary party's confidence vote in December. The optics would be appalling, but when you are already lying prostrate on the floor there is no further distance to fall. Short of a breakdown, the psychology of May as revealed through her career suggests she will cling on for as long as possible, or at least until she is utterly powerless. In practice this could come about if the planned indicative votes next week produce a majority for a softer Brexit, but for that reason she may well decide to pre-empt matters. Though her options have narrowed, there are two possible courses of action: either committing to a "managed no-deal" (i.e. shifting further to the right) or calling a general election to secure a mandate for her deal.

Given that her guiding star has been the preservation of the Conservative Party, she may decide that embracing no-deal is her best chance of both maintaining unity and remaining as leader. That no-deal has been rejected by the Commons is irrelevant: it remains the default outcome (now on the 12th of April) unless the government falls and/or an alternative deal is agreed. Even though this would void the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, it's likely the EU27 would still agree to a transition period (they get the certainty of the UK leaving but avoid the damage of an abrupt departure), during which a looser trade agreement (roughly the Canada model) could be negotiated. While this would be popular with the party membership, it would risk alienating a small but numerically significant number of Tories (Kenneth Clarke, Dominic Grieve etc) who might then feel obliged (finally) to vote against the government on a confidence motion, so the end result might still be a general election, but one in which the Tories would have a coherent platform that could galvanise most of their core voters and perhaps the reactionary segment that turned out in 2016.

If May could not bring herself to adopt a no-deal stance, then calling a general election with the intention of putting her own battered deal to the people (something she hinted at in last Wednesday's scolding sermon) would require the support of two-thirds of all MPs. As the opposition parties would automatically support this (though maybe not the Independent Group), she would need the support of approximately one-third of Conservative MPs, so roughly 105. Given that 235 of them voted for her deal when it was submitted for a second time earlier this month (and 196 did so in January), there is probably a large enough bloc willing to take the deal to the country, even allowing for the reluctance of those who fear the election result might be worse than 2017 and those who believe she is the wrong leader for such a campaign. As Labour would probably stand on a platform of a renegotiated soft Brexit plus a confirmatory vote (with remain on the ballot), the Tories' offer would essentially be "guaranteed Brexit now". Despite the unpopularity of her deal, this would give May a fighting chance.

The decision of the EU27 last week to take control of the timetable, together with the likelihood that the Commons will take control of the process of working out a deal that can command a majority of MPs this week, suggests that May's grip on power has irrevocably weakened and her days are numbered, but a cabinet coup on Monday might prove as premature as the party vote of no confidence in December did. May's strategy has always been to assume that her deal will be the last one standing when all other alternatives have failed, so her end very much depends on the Commons coming to a compromise over the next few days. If it cannot, then she would be entitled to submit her deal for a third time with the clear understanding that a further rejection will mean a no-deal exit in April. The suggestion this weekend that she won't submit her deal next week if there appears to be insufficient support doesn't mean she's giving up, but that she is still waiting for the opposition to give up first.

Insofar as we can discern a compromise behind daft labels such as "Common Market 2.0", it would essentially be Labour's plan for a customs union and single market for goods as a minimum, with horse-trading around other aspects of the single market such as state-aid and freedom of movement. The biggest impediment to such a compromise emerging is the unwillingness of the smaller parties (particularly the SNP) and the media to give Labour any credit for it, even if the specifics are negotiated by Keir Starmer and vocally supported by Jess Phillips. For all the talk of Labour's incoherence and Corbyn's leaver sympathies, this soft-Brexit compromise has been staring us in the face for over two years now. It has also been staring Theresa May in the face, and I suspect she has always considered it to be both the greatest threat to her deal and to the unity of the Conservative Party. For that reason, I imagine she perversely took some comfort from Saturday's march: both the uncompromising demands for revocation or referendum and the anti-Corbyn spin of the media.


  1. Has the strategy of holding on grimly ever failed her personally? It could well be learned behaviour that's worked well till now.

    It's an interesting hypothetical to consider whether of not Brown et al would have been running out of steam anyway come 2010 - absent Iraq there was still the financial crisis.

  2. That hideous creature, like some human/dinosaur cloning experiment gone right, strode up to that platform as if she was president of Brittania or something. Some were probably expecting her unknown advisers (their names to be revealed the moment she fucks up another general election) had come up with some profound and epoch making words that befitted the platform and the flags. People must have sat in nervous and excited anticipation!

    But what did these as yet unnamed writers put into the mouth of the Mayoraptor? Some irrelevant guff about how she feels our pain, how she shares our inner feelings. Or in other words more cheap or that that be cheep politics.

    Along with banning leader’s debates, let’s ban presidential style platforms!

  3. «whether of not Brown et al would have been running out of steam anyway come 2010 - absent Iraq there was still the financial crisis.»

    Voters don't understand the concept of "running out of steam": they vote not for a government, but to get rid of one, to throw the bums out. In the past decades english voters have thrown the bums out only in one specific case: falling property inflation. That is the central fact of english politics, even if there seems to be a "we don't talk about that" convention. It is the central fact because of how big it is: the "average" property owning households in southern England get £10,000 to £40,000 a year in tax-free work-free income from property (that is from redistributed from renters and buyers), and that usually nearly doubles their after tax-income and doubles their disposable income. Very few voters will vote against a government that delivers that, regardless of whatever else they do.

    Indeed New Labour was already unpopular in 2001, and Tony Blair had become electorally toxic, but property profits were booming and the lucky winners switched to abstention or, deliberately ineffectually, the LibDems; they did not switch to voting Conservative because they did not dare to upset a situation that was giving them such big property profits, and anyhow they remembered that the Conservatives had crashed property rents and prices in the 1990s.