Friday, 17 May 2019

End Times

The current apocalyptic air of political commentary is not a new development, despite the well-publicised angst over Nigel Farage's renewed prominence and the belief that, as Ian Dunt puts it, "Both parties [are] frozen in terror as Brexit destroys the system". The trope of ruin is a longstanding feature of British politics, going back through Thatcher's hyperbole in 1979 and Churchill's "gestapo" jibe in 1945 to the Zinoviev letter of 1924. The common characteristic is the Tories' fear of Labour, whether the latter is presented as a growing menace or as a declining faction of extremists and incompetents. What is relatively novel today is that the Tories aren't in control of the narrative, which has resulted in a shift in focus from the economy and society (i.e. the threat to material interests and privileges) towards the specialised interest of the political system itself. This has played to the advantage of centrists and constitutional obsessives (often the same people), but it has also paradoxically led to an even more extreme reading of events in which both the main parties are assumed to be heading for extinction.

The latest opinion polls suggest that not only will the Brexit Party win the most votes next Thursday but that Labour may be relegated to third, behind the Liberal Democrats, while the Conservatives may find themselves way back in fifth place behind the Greens. This seems unprecedented, but only if you haven't been paying attention. UKIP "won" the 2014 elections to the European Parliament with 27% of the vote, while Labour got 24% and the Tories 23%. In the 2009 election Labour got only 15% and was relegated to third, as UKIP got 16% and the Tories came first with 27%. In other words, we've been here before and the party system survived. You could argue that UKIP's good showing in 2014 was a contributory factor to the Tories acceptance that a referendum on EU membership was unavoidable, but you can't argue that it was a harbinger of a failure of the traditional two-party system, not least because the Tories won in 2015 and both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats imploded. That the 2017 general election saw Labour and the Conservatives post their best combined share of the vote since 1970 should also not be ignored.

The European Parliament election is clearly little more than a large-scale opinion poll on the state of Brexit. For many journalists this is about "the people sending Parliament a message", yet the distribution of votes suggested by recent polls is not dissimilar to the current balance of opinion in the Commons in that there isn't a clear majority for either no-deal or revoke. If we combine the Brexit Party and UKIP, the polls suggest the implied no-deal vote will be just shy of 40%, while the combined vote for the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Greens and Change UK will be around the same mark. Even if the Conservative and Labour votes erode further, it is difficult to see either the no-deal or revoke position getting close to 50%, and that's without acknowledging that quite a few votes in each column aren't for an uncompromising hard Brexit or immediate revocation but are likely to be variations of "just get on with it" or a belief that there should be a second referendum on the government's proposed deal.

But while there is little reason to believe that either Nigel Farage or whoever replaces Vince Cable will be the next Prime Minister, it is reasonable to suspect that a reconstitution of the political landscape is underway. The breakdown of the recent YouGov poll shows that Labour's vote remains more resilient than the Tories. It's clearly divided, with leavers attracted to the Brexit Party and remainers to the Lib Dems and Greens, but it is nowhere near the mass desertion the Tories are facing. It is also clear that Labour's support is weighted towards the young while the Tories haemorrhage to the Brexit Party is weighted towards the old. The implication is that the bulk of the Conservative Party not only wants a hard Brexit but that it wishes to move towards a more generally reactionary position, hence the emphasis of the contenders in the current leadership phoney war on law-and-order and national security, and the party hierarchy's reluctance to address Islamophobia. It also suggests a future of decline.

Theresa May's admission that she is going to resign as party leader, possibly as early as the first week in June, has put the final nail in the coffin of the cross-party talks with Labour. Though both sides will spin the outcome to suit their own narrative, it's clear that the underlying problem was May's unwillingness, or more accurately inability, to make a substantive compromise because of the opposition of her own backbenchers. Labour had more theoretical flexibility in that it could have agreed to forgo a confirmatory referendum if the government had committed to a permanent customs union, but it is undoubtedly relieved that it didn't have to make that choice, not just because of opposition within its own ranks but because of fears it would be stitched up by a future Tory administration reneging on its side of the deal. Assuming the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is voted down next month, this means that a deal cannot be passed by the current parliament, which increases the chance of a general election.

A new leader of the Conservative Party means a new Prime Minister and that could result in either a snap general election to secure a majority for a "managed no-deal" or a vote of no confidence, assuming the new administration tries to sit on its hands until October's cliff-edge, in which Tory remainers finally rebel in numbers. Though the assumption is that this scenario is most likely if Boris Johnson is elected leader, there's a good chance it will happen regardless of who gets the top spot as it is now clear that the membership will only accept a committed no-dealer. With such a decisive shift, it is difficult to believe that liberal Tories - even opportunists like Jeremy Hunt - will stay in the party, so a split among Conservative MPs is likely. The inexorable logic of the British political centre, as the SDP learned and Change UK are now discovering, is that you have to fold into the Liberal party to stand any chance of survival. Ironically, the coalition years have made that prospect much more palatable for socially liberal, remain-supporting Tories.

One obvious result of a reconfiguration of the centre-right is that the Lib Dems will have to give up the idea (which existed more as a fiction in the media than a reality on the ground) that their principal opponent is Labour. Outflanking on the left made tactical sense during the years of Blair and Kennedy, but it was shown to be a bait-and-switch under Clegg and there is no reason to believe that the party's current relative success is down to its ability to attract former Labour supporters. If anything, it is winning back the middle-class voters who deserted it in 2015 for the Cameroonian Tories. Labour's vulnerability among the young and metropolitan is to the Green Party, however that is unlikely to lead to lost seats while we retain first-past-the-post. Similarly, leavers who desert Labour for the Brexit Party next week are unlikely to switch en masse to the Tories in a general election (and despite Farage's claims, the Brexit Party are unlikely to stand if the Conservatives commit to no-deal). Farage is a protest vote but Johnson would be a protest too far.

The one factor in all this speculation that we shouldn't forget is the Conservative Party's instinct for self-preservation. I don't mean by this that they'll pull back from the brink - they have an unrivalled history of stupidity, after all - but that they are sufficiently ruthless and unprincipled enough to break every rule and norm in pursuit of power. That, after all, is why they regularly deploy the trope of ruin against even the most innocuous of Labour oppositions, hence David Cameron's "chaos with Ed Miliband" routine. They are now in the process of defenestrating the Prime Minister, despite this being contrary to their own house rules, and are likely to embrace a no-deal policy that only a small minority of its MPs really believe in. Theresa May's residual loyalty means she is already trying to do her bit by painting Labour as the remain party, presumably in the expectation of an imminent general election fought along Brexit lines. If Nigel Farage gets a peerage in her resignation honours list, you'll know the fix is in.

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