The state of British politics

Just over three weeks after the UK’s unexpected election result, much of Britain’s politics remains confused and in flux.  After an election which was meant to provide clarity and a strong government, the country is still a very long way from having either.

But this does not mean that we have learnt nothing in the last three weeks, and slowly some of the elements of what we might expect in the coming months are becoming a little clearer.  And in particular we would offer the following three observations.

First, Mrs May.  The prime minister is obviously very much weakened and is in many ways indeed “a dead woman walking”, as George Osborne described her in the immediate aftermath of the election.  The expectation is that at some point the Conservative party will choose her successor, and the conventional wisdom is that whether her remaining time is measured in months or in years, she will not be allowed to lead the party into the next election.  And given the public battering, both political and personal, that this most private and reserved of politicians endured in the last campaign it is arguable that she would not want to anyway.

But for the moment she is not without her uses for her party.  On one level she is a very convenient person to blame for everything that goes wrong, everything that ministers find they cannot do, every unpopular government policy.  Ministers have very quickly learnt to say “I would love to, but the prime minister …” whenever they are challenged, and she has become the scapegoat for all sorts of policy decisions which in any ordinary government would be decided at ministerial level and never get anywhere near No 10.

Given the number of difficult issues and potentially unpopular policy choices in the government’s in-tray, those of her colleagues who fancy themselves as a potential successor will be well aware of the advantages of playing it long and for the moment letting her take the flak.

More importantly, Conservative MPs of all stripes are aware that the leadership contest, whenever it comes, will be bitter and divisive, reigniting the long running feud between the two versions of Conservative ideology that we have written about before, but with the added spice that this time it really might be “winner takes all”:  whichever of the pro or anti-EU factions comes out on top may well be able to enact their preferred version of Brexit, and irrevocably set the course of the UK for generations to come.  This is a tempting prize, but also a big gamble, and we sense that neither wing of the party is quite at the stage where they are ready to fire the starting gun just yet.

We therefore continue to think that Mrs May might well remain in No 10 for rather longer than most other commentators are predicting.  She is clearly weak, but there is no obvious successor, and meanwhile she is performing a useful party role for her colleagues which many of them will want her to continue.  Her deal with the DUP is not ideal, and contains much that taxpayers on the British side of the Irish Sea might disapprove of, but it is not obviously weak or destined to fail, and there is certainly no desire from her MPs for another general election so soon after the last one.  And while individual government policies may have to be sacrificed or abandoned to the arithmetic of the division lobbies, minority governments, as the experience of the Labour government of 1974-79 among others has shown, can last a lot longer than people at first expect.

We conclude that any immediate attempt to dethrone her looks both unlikely to materialise and unlikely to succeed.  In effect, and in contrast to the usual expression, one might characterise the prime minister as for the moment being a very Movable Object opposed by a very Resistible Force.

Second, Mr Corbyn.   His transformation from no-hoper to walk-on-water guru has indeed been remarkable, and he is clearly enjoying the adulation of the masses, whether at Glastonbury or elsewhere.  But the popular view is that he is to all intents and purposes “prime minister in waiting”, and that at some point – and probably sooner rather than later – the government will fall and Labour will be asked to form an administration does to our mind ignore three things.

For a start, with the current numbers in the House of Commons a Corbyn administration would be no more stable or able to command the House than the Conservatives.  Indeed, with just 262 MPs, Labour would need the support of almost every minor party, Liberal Democrats, Nationalists, Greens and Irish, for every vote, which is a recipe for a weak (and short-lived) government.

On the other hand, it is by no means certain that at a fresh election, Labour would increase its tally of seats by very much.  It is improbable that the Conservatives will run such a poor campaign a second time, and in addition the line that many Labour MPs pushed on the doorsteps last month, viz “please vote for me personally, but don’t worry, there’s no chance of us actually winning and Jeremy being PM” will certainly not be reusable.

And lastly, the more likely a Corbyn government becomes, the more his policies will be properly scrutinised.  In particular on Brexit, Labour is as divided as the Conservatives and as unable to put a coherent, thought-through strategy before the electorate.   Just last week some 50 of his MPs voted for an amendment to the Queen’s Speech in support of a softer Brexit in defiance of the party’s leadership, leading to three more front bench Labour spokesmen being sacked.  This is not the hallmark of a united party preparing to govern.

Which leads to the third of our observations, on the Brexit negotiations.  Unlike much else in British politics at the moment, these are progressing very much as we (and many others) expected.  The EU negotiating team are benefitting from having a strong legal and economic position, the unanimous agreement and support of their political sponsors, a detailed and coherent tactical plan carefully created in the year since the referendum vote, and a realistic Plan B of simply running down the clock and ending with no deal if they cannot get what they want.

Against this David Davis and the British negotiating team have … none of the above.   And in the circumstances it is not very surprising that so far what little that has emerged from the early exchanges seems to have gone almost exactly as the EU has wanted.

Ominously, Davis is already beginning to use the two lines that “Leaving the EU will be very difficult to negotiate” (so much for the Brexiteers’ claims last year that it would be a simple task to “take back control”), and “I would like to be more flexible but the prime minister will not let me” (which is as clear an example as we have yet seen of the “blame the PM” culture in government that we noted earlier).  While we are sure that both of these are literally true – in particular Mrs May’s rigid determination to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over UK affairs is well known, even to the extent of wishing to deny them a say over matters relating to UK-EU trade – they do not sound to us like the statements of someone who thinks he is succeeding in his task and might instead be characterised as Davis “getting his excuses in early”.

The biggest problem Davis faces is that while there is probably a majority of people, both in the government and the country at large, that now accepts that Brexit should happen, there is no majority at all for any one strand or type of departure.  So whatever deal Davis negotiates, whether minimal, soft, hard or chaotic with no deal at all, is likely to be opposed by more people than support it.

This is not a recipe for uniting the country behind whatever he manages to agree.  And it will be little consolation for Davis or his colleagues in the government that the Labour party is as split over the issue as they are.

So as the fog of the immediate post-election period begins to lift a bit, the UK political scene reveals a divided country, a prime minister who is weak but perhaps less powerless and temporary than conventional wisdom says, an opposition which remains split, with many MPs still at odds with their leader, and perhaps not as close to power as some think, and negotiations with the EU which show every sign of being as difficult as they appeared a year ago.

And last month’s ill-starred election would appear to have resolved nothing.