04 January 2018
Will It Fly?
Can Tories survive Brexit and leftward swing?
By J R Thomas
It’s a brave commentator who provides any political predictions for 2018. It was with hindsight foolish indeed to attempt forecasts for what turned into the extraordinary events of 2016; even more so the sudden reversals of 2017. What price 2018, as the number of known, barely known, and completely unknown unknowns continues to increase? The United Kingdom is perhaps best characterised in the early weeks of 2018 as an old drunk, stumbling down a broken road, alternately bursting into happy song and then into foul oaths. Even the weather seems as uncertain as the road we stumble along, the government as confused and uncertain as boozers trying to make a dignified exit from the pub.
The European Union is not a pub of course – the cynic might say that if it was the drinks would be unaffordable to the public but free to the bar staff – but the British negotiating team do give the appearance of behaving like a rugger team after a long session in the after-match bar. Or are they? There is a great difference between the negotiating approaches of the two sides. The EU team are legalistic, procedural, formal, codified; they are doing it, you might say, by the book, even though much of the book is having to be written as they go along. It is exactly what you might expect to find from a French or German lawyer. The UK approach is more redolent of what used to be called (and might still be called if our citizenry could better remember their own past) the “Nelson Touch”. That is to say, the politicians involved in the negotiations are largely obeying such rules as they find helpful, and disregarding any that aren’t, in spite of the efforts of the more Remain-leaning sections of the media and most of the civil service to keep them to a narrower course.
Which is a convoluted way of explaining that nobody really knows what is going on; the government approach seems entirely opportunistic and relies on catching such balls as may be thrown into the air, preferably in the right order. We know what Boris thinks, not least because Mrs May has found it expedient to let the great man speak without restraint on this subject; and we can probably work out what Michael Gove thinks. But who knows what Mrs May herself thinks, or indeed Mr Davis, devoted Leaver though he is. They not only seem disinclined to lift the telescope to their eyes, they seem reluctant to use it at all. No strategy statements, no White Papers on Britain post Brexit, no great visions and declamations as to the brave new world which the British ship may encounter as it begins its lone voyage into the world. Maybe everybody is too busy to think of such matters (though that is not the impression you might gain of Mr Davis’s level of activity). Or maybe there is another reason.
Indeed, there is. And it has a friendly manner and a white beard. No, not Father Christmas; Jeremy Corbyn. The Conservative Party, from top to bottom, has become transfixed by the resurgent Labour Party. The Tories, large swathes of the population, and perhaps even JC himself, are stunned by the strength of Labour’s apparent appeal to the electorate. It cannot be, they say, it should not be, it must not be. But nobody can really put a finger on why it is; or if they can (which in reality is not that difficult) they don’t know what to do about it.
Political and social attitudes, like so many things, go in cycles. In 1945 the voters, to Churchill’s astonishment, wanted a brave new egalitarian world, a fairer distribution of the goodies and privileges of life. By 1951 the pendulum had already swung back and the people, to paraphrase the Tory election slogan, wanted to be set free. In 1979 they wanted to be set free again and swept Mrs Thatcher into power to do just that; appreciating perhaps that as Mrs T promised (unusually directly for a politician), life might well be worse before it got better. Now Mr Corbyn is benefitting as the swing accelerates in the other direction; an attitude is prevailing that there is once again too much privilege, that the rich have become too rich, that the mighty should be cast down; that the time has come for a great reforming government which will make Britain a fairer, or at least more equal, place. Oddly enough Mr Macron in France and Mr Trump in the US and even Mr Orban in Hungary are riding the same swing; they have just painted it in their own colours.
When the pendulum moves there is often in truth very little that the political party who sees it vanishing in the mists can do about it. The natural reaction is to run after it. That produces those bizarre political experiences, “Me-Too” policy expedients. These can be especially alluring for politicians who do not hold deeply rooted philosophical attachments. Nobody could accuse Mr Corbyn, or John MacDonnell, of me-tooism. They hold beliefs to which they have been deeply and sincerely attached all their lives, from which they deviate not at all. But Mrs May, like her predecessor David Cameron, might be said to be more interested in helming the ship than plotting any particular course.
Theresa’s urge to try to recapture those idealistic young voters slipping away to Jeremy can be seen in a number of policy reversals over the last year and more; the revival of grammar schools quietly shelved, financial disciplines on the NHS reversed, tough rules on universal credit wait times eroded. Latest, and probably most shocking to those traditional rural Tories who make up the envelope-stuffing door-stepping brigade, the backbone of the party in so many safe seats, is the abandonment of a commitment to hold a free vote on scrapping the fox hunting ban.
This last is especially fascinating: Theresa, not noted for her appetite for country sports, MP for Maidenhead, hardly deep rurality, committed to this during the 2016 election campaign, saying that she was in favour of fox hunting. She has probably had a letter or two since; but even given no apparent great pressure there was no mention of a vote in the last Queen’s Speech, and the word now is that there will be no time for such matters in the parliamentary sessions, indeed the suggestion has been released that the PM has gone off the whole idea. At this rate “friends of Theresa” will soon be saying that she is considering becoming vegan.
What is going on is clear enough; Mrs May is trying to reverse the swing to Labour by stealing Mr Corbyn’s clothes. Unsurprisingly, they will never be made to fit. Worse, the electorate will never believe a word of it – after all, if voters want socialism they want it red in tooth and claw, not a sort of blotchy blue version. And worse still, some of those highly offended fox hunters won’t vote Labour, but they will cease and desist from stuffing Tory envelopes and knocking on doors, and stay home on election day, polishing their riding boots and playing sad little tootles on their hunting horns.
Lord Heseltine was right – Labour governments have been in office before, and the country has survived the experience. Thus, a lot of disgruntled voters dare sit on their hands, knowing this will pass. If Mrs May wants to win she cannot pretend to be a mild version of Labour. The only way to win – and even that might fail – is to seize the initiative. That might mean promising lower taxes, a more vigorous approach to Brexit negotiations, a tempting vision of economic enterprise and an exciting new world after Britain cuts the European cord. It worked for Mrs Thatcher after all.