Ahead of conference in Manchester the party has few good options leftby Peter Kellner / October 1, 2017 / Leave a comment
Six months ago, Theresa May had a plan. Whether you consider it a cunning plan depends on your judgement and, perhaps, your sense of irony.
Her plan arose from a particular concern about the Brexit timetable. Under the fixed term parliament law, the next general election was due in May 2020. This would be just over a year after the United Kingdom left the European Union. The Conservatives would campaign for re-election against the possible backdrop of post-Brexit economic turbulence. From a party point of view, it would be far better to go to the country once the dust had settled.
That meant holding another election soon, and so re-setting the five-year clock so that the subsequent election need not be held until 2022. To do this meant answering “yes” to two questions: 1) Given the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, could she persuade enough MPs to vote to dissolve parliament well before its five years were up? And 2) Could the Tories be sure to win an early election?
We all know what happened. The yes-yes that May expected turned to yes-no. Labour joined the Tories in agreeing to an early election—but the Tories’ initial 20-point lead evaporated, and we ended up with a hung parliament, and May’s authority much diminished.
What, then, is the Tories’ electoral strategy now, as they gather for their annual conference? We can dismiss the tweaks to student loans, announced over the weekend, as a short-term gimmick designed to get May through this week, not a strategy to get her, her party or the country through the next five years—or even the next five months.
For a longer-term perspective, we need to return to the prime minister’s recent speech in Florence. A 2022 election, which was supposed to help the Conservatives, now looks like a terrible risk. May spoke of a transition of “about” two years. Exactly two years takes us to March 2021; “about” two years almost certainly means longer—perhaps the end of 2021 or early 2022. Far from taking place when the Brexit dust had settled, an election in May 2022 would see it swirling around ferociously, and upsetting the very voters the Tories hoped to woo.
Foer that reason, and even before we consider whether May herself will survive that long as PM, the prospect of the current parliament running its full term looks slim. At some point before then the prime minister, whoever he or she is, will want a fresh mandate, hoping that victory will allow them to ride out any post-Brexit turbulence before the following election in, say, 2024 or 2025.
In hard-headed, electoral terms, then, the big questions facing the Tories in Manchester are when should they hold the next election—and who should lead them into it?
“May is one of the more decent occupants of 10 Downing Street—her concern for the ‘just about managing’ is real”
Neither question is easy to answer. Timing will depend on the course of the Brexit negotiations, and may not be in the prime minister’s gift. If the talks break down, and we face a stark choice between hard Brexit and no Brexit, then the government might collapse, and an election take place anyway, say next autumn. What condition the Tories, and for that matter Labour, will be in at that point is anyone’s guess. It could be a fascinating contest, of huge excitement to pollsters, journalists and political scientists, but potentially terrifying to anyone whose main concern is the future of the UK.
The second question is no easier to answer. It’s clear that May will not lead the Tories into the next election, if only because she made such a hash of this year’s contest. I do not have as poor an opinion of the prime minister as most others. She is one of the more decent occupants of 10 Downing Street. She has consistently and genuinely supported women’s rights, often doing so under the radar when her actions did nothing to her career. Her much-mocked concern for the “just about managing” is real.
However, and it’s a huge “however,” she is a useless election campaigner. She lacks the wit, the flair, the clarity of her ideas and the quickness of thought that a modern leader requires.
But who will lead the Tories instead? The person that Labour would fear most – and it’s always useful to ask whom you opponents do NOT want—is Ruth Davison. She’s modern. She’s sassy. She can reach voters that posh Tories can never attract. She would stand up to Andrew Neil. Just two problems: she’s not an MP, and she’s strongly anti-Brexit.
Who else? Boris? No longer: his star has faded, and his latest antics have repelled a number of his colleagues at Westminster. Andrea Leadsom? She was the Tories’ finalist last year and, as a strong Brexiteer, might be prime minister now had she not been forced to withdraw from the contest after giving a catastrophic interview to the Times. However, I doubt she will make the cut next time, even if she decides to stand.
Assuming that Conservative MPs and activists wish to elect a leader who can heal the party’s wounds—and that is not necessarily a safe assumption these days—they will choose a leader who is pro-Brexit but not pathologically so. The most obvious candidate is David Davis. But if the Brexit negotiations break down, and he attracts some of the blame, his star might fade as fast as Boris’s.
So: the chances are that the next general election will be held before 2022, and the Tories will enter it with a leader other than Theresa May. But all else is uncertain—at least until after the conference in Manchester, and probably for a good while after that. Anyone who says they know exactly what will happen in the months ahead is a fool or a fraud. The short-to-medium term future for British politics is more uncertain than at any time I can recall.