“The Prime Minister has no domestic opposition—but that does not mean that she has no opponents”by / February 24, 2017 / Leave a comment
Theresa May has left Labour in her wake and now has an 18-point lead over Corbyn’s ruined party. The Copeland by-election victory was a stunning outcome for the Conservatives and the possibility of an early General Election arises once more. If she were to call one and the national swing were to mirror that in Copeland, the Prime Minister would hack Labour down to a sorry huddle of 170 MPs.
Like her Scottish counterpart Nicola Sturgeon, Theresa May now has no domestic opposition. The PM stands alone on the high ground of Westminster politics, dominating the landscape utterly. Those leadership challengers of last year—Boris Johnson and the others—are all but invisible, their ambitions neutralised by the constant demands of high office. May, with her party gathered at her well-shod feet, leads.
And yet, despite it all, the Conservative party’s ascent is illusory, May’s domestic power a mirage. She enjoys a hollow kind of dominance, over an opposition party incapable of opposition, whose leader is incapable of leadership. Jeremy Corbyn is one of the least popular politicians in the country despite his supporter’s recent claim to the contrary. A recent YouGov poll showed his popularity rating as minus 40, the worst of any Labour leader in living memory.
The Ukip threat turned out to be precisely that—a threat—and the party leader’s failure to win the by-election in Stoke showed that it was nothing more. Ukip has been neutered, its main objective achieved and its principal asset—Nigel Farage—now a talk show radio host. May has risen to the top of British politics, having eclipsed a slew of mediocrities, none of whom have been able to match her for adaptability, staying power or luck.
The Prime Minister has no domestic opposition—but that does not mean that she has no opponents. She does. But, unusually, they are not to be found on the green benches that face her in the House of Commons. Instead they are in Brussels, Berlin and Paris, whose governments are now her true adversaries.
May has talked big on Europe and has deployed her characteristic steeliness when lecturing her party on the importance of giving no running commentary on her plans for Brexit. She saw off the vote on Article 50 in the House of Commons and managed to come to an arrangement with Nissan, which satisfied the company sufficiently to commit to building a new plant in the north east. The terms of the agreement were not made public.
These were significant achievements. And yet the extent of the task before May is orders of magnitude more challenging than either of these minor victories. Quite how colossal the challenge will be for May was made clear by Christian Kern, the Austrian Chancellor, who told Bloomberg in a recent interview that Brussels would expect Britain to pay a €60bn bill on leaving the EU.
She will have to confront and negotiate away a barrage of such unpalatable, politically impossible demands from the EU. Brussels has no incentive to accommodate Britain’s demands for a generous trade deal, all the more so now that anti-EU politics is gaining such currency on the continent, especially in France. The EU will give Britain nothing.
And this is why the Copeland result is the very opposite of what it seems. It looks like victory, and in the short-term, it is. But in the longer-term, its effects work against May, not for her. Because the more powerful she becomes domestically, the more confident the pro-Brexit Tory core becomes and the further it drives them into their error of mistaking domestic prowess for foreign influence.
The by-election victory will only boost the expectations of the eurosceptics, who will see in their domination of British politics license to take a tough negotiating line with the EU. But what they are really doing is setting themselves and their Prime Minister up for a catastrophic fall. Copeland will, in its way, boost the Conservative Brexiters’ confidence. The “mandate creep” towards hard Brexit continues. And the higher the expectations of the Brexit brigade, the more painful will be their eventual and inevitable landing.