United Kingdom: Politics on the Road to Brexit

A Dead Woman Walking: When Theresa May became Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party she inherited from her predecessor, David Cameron, a small but workable, 12 seat parliamentary majority. In April 2017 Theresa May, a politician with a reputation for pragmatism and caution, gambled by calling early parliamentary elections with polling to take place on 11 June. Theresa May calculated that by taking advantage of her twenty point opinion poll lead and the unpopularity of her Labour opponent, Jeremy Corbyn she would be able to enter Brexit negotiations, which were due to start on 19 June with a strengthened  in relation to the EU and the UK parliament. On polling day, however, following a poorly planned and executed Conservative campaign and a better than expected performance by the Labour Party, Theresa May lost her parliamentary majority. It might have been expected that at this point, on the basis of precedent, Theresa May would have resigned as Conservative Party leader. In the immediate aftermath of the election George Osborne, the former Chancellor who had migrated into journalism becoming editor of the London Evening Standard, famously described Theresa May as ‘a dead women waling.’  Theresa May, however, held onto her position as leader of the Conservative Party. A controversial political and financial deal was also done with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) under which with their 10 MPs would sustain Theresa May as head of a weakened Conservative administration. Some observers, however, suggested that this post-election arrangement would provide Theresa May with only a temporary reprieve. Michael Portillo, the former Conservative politician and commentator, for instance, predicted that Theresa May would be out of office by the end of the year. Contrary to such predictions Theresa May’s government was, however, to show unexpected durability.

 

For Fear of Something Worse: Following the general election Theresa was able to retain the support of Conservative MPs, in spite of their dismay at the election result, for three main reasons:

 

  • The Ticking Clock – Article 50 had been triggered on 29 March 2017 setting in motion the process of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. The timetable set out under Article 50 means that United Kingdom and the EU have two years in which to secure agreement on the terms of departure and future relationship. Theresa May had become leader of the Conservative Party after the referendum by acclamation after her main rivals, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Andrea Leadsom had all self-immolated in various ways.. In the event of a new leadership contest to find a successor to Theresa May it would be unlikely that the democratic process for consulting party members could be set aside again.  Losing a significant amount of time from the already limited period available for negotiation,  while the Conservative conducted a leadership contest, would undermine the UK position and limit the chances of successfully securing an agreement.
  • Prime Minister Corbyn? If the Conservative Party did seek to replace Theresa May then it would be possible that an election for a new leader would also lead to new parliamentary elections. In view of the closeness of the result on 11 June there was a significant probability that a new election would result in victory for the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn.
  • The High Cost of Civil War – There was no clear front runner in terms of a possible to Theresa May as Conservative Party leader. A Conservative leadership contest would, in view of this fact, be likely to be lengthy, bitter, and divisive. Such in-fighting would make the Conservative Party vulnerable to Jeremy Corbyn’s newly resurgent Labour Party.

 

These three factors remained relevant throughout the later part of 2017 and into 2018 and explain how a theoretically weak government has had the capacity to survive both external shocks and internal dissension. The last two months of 2017 saw three Cabinet level resignations from Theresa May’s government. These were Michael Fallon (1 November), the Defence Secretary, Priti Patel (8 November), the International Development Secretary, and Damien Green, (20 December) First Secretary of State and Minister for the Cabinet Office. These high profile departures in close succession did not, however, have an impact on the overall stability of the government. In October 2017 Grant Schapps, the former Conservative Party Chairman, attempted to initiate moves to oust Theresa May, but found limited support for such a move amongst other Conservative MPs.

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In spite of the government’s longevity and the continuing support of the majority of MPs there are observable sources of growing tension within the Conservative Party.

 

  • The Vision Thing – When Theresa May became Prime Minister she sought to move away the

social and economic liberalism championed by her predecessor, David Cameron. In its place she instituted a new political ethos which was more traditionally Conservative and economically interventionist. This line reflected Theresa May’s personal beliefs and was articulated and advocated by her influential Chief of Staff and policy advisor, Nick Timothy. The new strategic approach was seen as allowing the Conservative Party to appeal to a new constituency of voters whose existence had been identified during the referendum campaign. This electoral group had voted Leave in the referendum, were concentrated in midlands and northern constituencies, and were previous Labour and UKIP supporters. This new political direction was reflected in Theresa May’s speech on becoming leader of the Conservative Party (July 2016), her speech to Conservative Party conference (October 2018) and in the manifesto and planning for the June 2017 election campaign. This strategy was abandoned after its failure to deliver victory, and no alternative was produced to take its place. This failure to produce a post-election domestic agenda can only partially be explained by the tendency of Brexit to crowd out other issues. There has been a growing disquiet within the Conservative Party at the apparent inability of the government to put together a narrative underpinned by policy solutions for issues such housing, education, and health. A number of Conservative MP’s have sought, from outside of the government/ to formulate ideas and inform the direction taken by the Conservative Party. These have included George Freeman, former head of the Downing Street Policy Board with his Big Tent initiative and Robert Halfon, former Skills Minister, with his ideas about policies to broaden the Conservative support base. At government level, however, attempts to provide the the administration with new direction, such as the October 2017  Conservative Party conference and the January 2018 reshuffle, have tended to misfire.

 

  • Brexit Means Brexit – The June 2016 referendum did not end debate within the Conservative Party over the issue of Europe it simply shifted it onto new ground. The Conservative remains divided both within government and across the parliamentary party between those who advocate a clean break with the EU (hard Brexit) and those who support a continued close alignment with Europe (soft Brexit) The former are principally represented with government by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and within parliament by Jacob Rees Mogg and the European Research Group. The latter are represented in government by Amber Rudd and Philipp Hammond, and in parliament by Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General, Anna Soubry, and Justine Greening, who is newly arrived on the back benches following the January 2018 reshuffle. Between these contending Hard Brexit/Soft Brexit factions are a significant body of MPs who are ready to accept the deal negotiated by the government and would like to more forward onto other issues. Theresa May has sought to maintain a balance between the two different groupings. The government’s lack of a majority, however, means that Theresa May’s potentially vulnerable to both hard and soft Brexit groupings. The first stage of Brexit negotiations concluded on 8 December 2017. On 22 February 2018 the Brexit Cabinet met to agree a common direction for the UK prior to the start of the second stage negotiations. This position was set out by Theresa May on 2 March in a speech which again sought, with a significant degree of success, to balance Leave/Remain interests. The speech stated that the UK would be leaving the Single Market, and Customs Union, and that the European Court of Justice jurisdiction in the UK would come to an end. At the same time it was stated that, from outside of the EU, the UK would retain or construction relations with a range of European agencies and organisations. It was also indicated that UK/EU ‘regulatory standards would remain ‘substantially similar.’ The speech did not offer a solution to the vexed issue of the Irish border other than a suggestion that the innovative use of technology could remove the need for a hard border. It is one of the curiosities of the referendum campaign that the Irish border issue, which subsequently achieved such prominence, was so little discussed at the time. The speech received a broadly positive response from the Conservative Party from across the Leave/Remain spectrum. It remains to be seen, however, whether this unity will persist. Under the pressure of negotiation, and possible compromises, with the EU negotiators.

 

Defying Gravity: Although the Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority in the June 2017 election it gained 42.3% of the vote, the party’s highest vote share since the landslide result in June 1983. Opinion polling conducted in late 2017/late 2018 show support for the Conservatives to be broadly steady at around 40%. Support for the Conservatives has held up in spite of drift over domestic policy and divisions over Brexit. The stability of the Conservative vote may be explained, in part, by Jeremy Corbyn’s capacity both to mobilise support for the Labour Party, and to consolidate support for his Conservative opponents. The next real  electoral test for both parties will be the May 2018 local elections. In these elections the Conservatives are set to face a particular challenge in London where the capital city’s established overall tendency to vote Labour has been accentuated following the 2016 referendum.  . .  .

 

Oh Jeremy Corbyn! On polling day in the June 2017 elections the Labour gained 40% of the vote. This represented a 15% rise in its support compared to polling at the start, and a 9.5% increase on the Labour share of the vote in the 2015 election.  These advances produced a sense of  euphoria amongst Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party. This euphoria was strongly informed by the belief that Jeremy Corbyn had during the campaign been able to mobilise a new constituency of formerly disengaged young voters. This was the so-called ‘youthquake’ which was selected by Oxford Dictionaries as their ‘word of the year.’ Subsequent research, however, has shown that the ‘youthquake’ was more apparent than real and that the Labour Party’s advances were a reflection of a more conventional increase n vote share across a broad range of age groups. During the summer and autumn of 2017 this post-election euphoria, or ‘Corbynmania’ was on display at the Glastonbury Festival where Jeremy Corbyn addressed crowds from the Pyramid Stage (June 2017) and the Labour Party conference in October 2017 at which delegates celebrated as if they had actually won the election. Many of Corbyn’s supporters were indeed convinced that they were, in spite of the facts to the contrary on the cusp of achieving power. The election also had an impact on Corbyn’s critics within the Labour Party, particularly from amongst the ranks of the parliamentary Labour Party. Many of these critics  had expected Corbyn’s campaign to end in electoral debacle, and some had hoped that such a failure would loosen his grip on the party leadership. In the event the advances achieved by Corbyn left his opponents either stunned into silence or compelled to declare their loyalty. The most notable example of this latter group was Tom Watson, Labour’s Deputy Leader and erstwhile Corbyn’s critic, who sought to demonstrate his allegiances by giving a rendition from the conference stage of Corbyn’s informal personal anthem ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn!’

 

Constructive Ambiguity: During the 2017 General Election the Labour Party benefitted from the issue of Europe. Theresa May succeeded during the campaign in defining the Conservatives as the party of Brexit. In reaction to this there was an observable tendency for Remain voters to give their support to the Labour Party. Labour Party policy during and after the election was, however, opposed to membership of both the Single Market and the Customs Union. During the Queen’s Speech debate in parliament on 29 June John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, proposed an amendment which called for a Brexit deal which would deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union. Three Labour Party front benchers, Ruth Cadbury, Catherine West, and Andy Slaughter, who supported a motion calling for continued UK membership of the Single Market and Custom’s Union were sacked by Jeremy Corbyn who had called on Labour MPs to abstain. The Labour leadership subsequently continued to follow a line of constructive ambiguity, criticising the government’s policy on Brexit whilst at the same time following fundamentally the same policy in relation to the Single Market and the Customs Union. In this way the Labour leadership sought to keep together its divided support base, including both the broad mass of its Remain voting membership, and Leave voters in key northern constituencies. In January/February 2018, however, Jeremy Corbyn came under increasing pressure from party members to soften Labour’s stance on Brexit. In an apparent response to this pressure Jeremy Corbyn stated on 20 February that the UK will ‘have to have a Customs Union’ in order to secure trade and resolve the Northern Irish and Irish Republic border issue. This policy change in support of Customs Union membership was confirmed by Jeremy Corbyn in speech given in Coventry on 26 February.       

 

Peak Corbyn? The euphoria which had been evident within the Labour Party in the immediate aftermath of the election had largely dissipated by late 2017/early 2018 as it became clear that Theresa May’s government was not on the verge of imminent collapse. In the months after the 2017 election the Labour Party had moved ahead of the Conservative. By early 2018 the Conservatives has drawn level or, in some polls, taken the lead again. As stated previously Jeremy Corbyn and other hard line members of his leadership such as John McDonnell  may have played a significant role in  consolidating support for the Conservatives.It increasingly looks as if the 40% of the vote gained in the 2017 might not be a staging post for Jeremy Corbyn on the road to victory but rather the peak of their electoral success..The apparent post-election unity within the Labour Party has also largely evaporated. It has been replaced by internal dissension as Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in the Momentum organisation seek to consolidate their control over the internal structures of the Labour Party. The Labour leadership may hope that the party may be able to achieve new impetus once campaigning begins for the May 2018 local elections. .

 

Stranded on the Centre Ground: The Liberal Democrats, led by Tim Farron, contested the June 2017 election on a pro-EU platform, specifically targeting the 48% who voted Remain in the previous year’s referendum. Previous by-election and polling results had suggested that this would be a viable strategy. In the general election, however, the Liberal Democrats proved to lack the organisation capacity necessary to make them a credible recipient of Remain voters, the greater part of which went to the Labour Party. The Green Party similarly lost many of its voters to Corbyn’s Labour Party. In the aftermath of the election Tim Farron resigned as leader and his place was taken by Vince Cable, the veteran Liberal Democrat MP who had recently regained the parliamentary seat that he lost in 2015., In the post-election period, however, Vince Cable has failed to present a new agenda which might provide the basis for expanded Liberal support. The opinion poll rating for the Liberal Democrats currently stands at around 8%. With the Conservatives currently preoccupied with Brexit and the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn lurching to the left the political centre-ground shoul provide a positive territory for a third party to find votes. There is currently, however, no Macron type figure in UK politics capable of mobilising such votes.

 

 

Death Throes of a Party? Following the June 2016 referendum, which it played a catalytic role in bringing about, UKIP has retreated to the margins of British political life. UKIP secured 1.8% of the vote in the June 2017 elections, a fall of 10.8% compared to 2015. Paul Nuttall, the UKIP leader, arrived immediately after the election. In September 2017 Henry Bolton, a former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate who had secured the backing of ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage, defeated Anne Maeie Waters, who had stood for election on an anti=Islam platform, to secure the UKIP leadership. On 17 February 2018, however, Henry Bolton was ousted as UKIP leader following controversy of racist tweets sent by his girlfriend. It was notable that on this occasion UKIP members voted to remove Henry Bolton in spite of the fat that he continued to enjoy the support of Nigel Farage. Whilst the proximate cause of Henry Bolton’s removal related to his personal life there was also a sense of dissatisfaction amongst UKIP members at the party’s overall lack of impact on the political scene. It is unlikely, however, that even a leader with a greater sense of strategic direction and a less colourful private life would have been able to revive UKIP’s fortunes in the current circumstances with the Brexit process underway and politics dominated by the two main parties. It should be noted, however, that even in its current diminished state UKIP is still recording 4/5% of the vote representing an electorally relevant body of voters.

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