The PM's dominance might look total, but she could come unstuckby / March 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
You don’t need opinion polls to tell you that Theresa May “can call a general election any day she chooses and win by a landslide,” as Tony Blair put it to me the other day. The opposition is falling apart so fast you can almost hear the seams tearing.
The polls still give you a feel for how sweeping her victory could be, however. Despite being in mid-term and presiding over a sluggish economy and visibly failing health and criminal justice systems, a Conservative government with laughably inadequate Foreign and International Trade Secretaries enjoys an 18-point lead over Labour. May leads Jeremy Corbyn in every nation and region of Britain, north, south, east, west and all places in between. Women prefer May to Corbyn as well as men. The young as well as the old. The upper and middle classes prefer her, as you would expect. But her popularity among the working class is also extraordinary. Blair’s former aide Theo Bertram collected the data and concluded Labour’s core vote was “collapsing on a scale that is worse than any point in history.” Everyone who has been denounced by the left for not being left enough can enjoy a bleak irony. The far left claimed to be the true voice of a fantasy working class. Now it controls the Labour Party, the actual working class is repelled as it has never been repelled before.
Grandiose claims that we are living through unprecedented change are justified for once. The British are particularly inclined to resist them. They search for familiar parallels which prove there is nothing new under the sun. And on the face of it, there is nothing new about one-party dominance. The Conservatives ruled Britain pretty much continuously from 1885 until 1905. They ruled on their own or in coalition nearly every year from 1916 until 1945, and enjoyed sole power from 1951 until 1964, and from 1979 until 1997. New Labour broke the pattern of Tory hegemony for 13 years—a success neither right nor left can forgive.
When one-party rule sets in, the country makes an accommodation with its rulers. I do not just mean the usual place- and rent-seekers, who hurtle towards the controllers of public money like wolves towards their prey. Rather, voters who don’t much like the government accept its rule as inevitable. Someone has to run the country, they mutter, and only Salisbury/Baldwin/Macmillan/Thatcher/Blair seems able to do it.
However tempting it is to embrace the familiar, the past is no guide to the present. Previous oppositions always provided new ideas. Labour people, for whom Corbyn has made any catastrophe seem possible, have fixed with ghoulish horror on 1931, when the national government reduced Labour to just 52 seats. Yet however crushed the party was, it nevertheless began to develop the ideas that powered the 1945 government. You see the same phenomenon in our time. The Labour councils denounced as “loony left” in the Thatcher era, embraced ideas on rights for gays, women and ethnic minorities, which seem common sense now. Sophisticated opinion derided the Tory backwoodsmen who stumbled into parliament after the Blair landslide of 1997 for “banging on about Europe,” but look where we are. Ed Miliband was mocked in turn, yet May steals his agenda now.
“May surveys not only the political but also the intellectual collapse of the opposition”
The modern far left, though, has no ideas to steal. It is an attitude not a programme. A howl not an argument. No one will look back and say “laugh though people did, Corbyn’s party was the first to think of what we take for granted.” The banality of the far left explains their otherwise inexplicable indulgence for Hamas, Hezbollah, Putin and the Iranian mullahs. In traditional leftst terms, the gangster capitalists of the Kremlin and the theocrats of the Middle East represent ultra-reactionary forces. Only when you grasp that all that is left of the left is a Pavlovian Occidentalism, do you realise that for its devotees any enemy of the west is better than none. May’s position appears stronger than any of her predecessors: she not only surveys the political collapse of the opposition, but its intellectual collapse as well.
Her strength, however, is illusory. It is not true that all opposition has disappeared, and the prime minister stands alone and unchallenged. True, the right has been immensely strengthened by the votes for Brexit and Trump. Now that the official opposition is absent without leave, the right is the only force that matters, and the only force that can threaten her. Do not forget, for the right has not, that she, the Chancellor and half the cabinet opposed Brexit. Having backed “Remain,” May must now push for the hardest Brexit imaginable to convince it that she has the zeal of the true convert. The arrogant “sacking” of Michael Heseltine from purely advisory roles for daring to dissent on Brexit is a mere foretaste of the struggles to come.
Perhaps the millions whose ancestors sighed and came to terms with the only possible government available in the 19th and 20th centuries will sigh and come to terms again. But whatever the polls say, I doubt that the right’s triumph can last. For May, like the “Leave” campaign before her, has not levelled with the public—on either the economic costs of Brexit, or on the vast complexities which are already overwhelming Whitehall. Sooner or later the truth will become evident, and she will suffer.
Bear in mind too that the splits in British conservatism between its nationalist and pro-business wings have yet to appear. They will widen as the costs of leaving the single market rack up, along with the contradictions. For May and the resurgent right claim to speak for their new working class supporters. At the same time and without a blush of shame, they threaten to turn Brexit Britain into a low-tax, low-regulation offshore banking centre, unable to sustain the welfare state and NHS. Tory MPs show every sign of living in this world of make-believe. Their outrage about Budget changes to taxes on the self-employed—small change in fiscal terms—shows they haven’t begun to think about the hardship and hard choices Brexit will bring.
Finally, remember that the far right is as ugly as the far left. It also is an attitude and not a programme, a howl rather than an argument, and has no idea how to move Britain forward. Perhaps I am being naïve, but I retain enough faith in my fellow citizens to believe they will turn on the know-nothing Brexit right as they have already turned on the know-nothing Corbyn left. May’s opponents can prove that nothing need be inevitable in politics, if only they can provide an alternative worth voting for.