The PM is weak—but her speech today was politically smart. If the government and Labour can work together, on Brexit, employment practices or anything else, then real progress can be made. If not, then the opposition will be blamedby Rachel Cunliffe / July 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
The 52 per cent of voters who chose to leave the EU did not consist only of traditional Tories. In fact, as Brexiteers have been keen to remind us, Leave voters came from all sorts of different communities. That’s why Labour chose to join the Conservatives in advocating that Britain leave the EU in the last election. Combined, these two pro-Brexit parties won 80 per cent of the vote.
What these numbers show is that Brexit is a cross-party issue. We have accepted that it is going to happen, but how we go about the most important challenge Britain has faced in generations is very much up for debate. And in this, there is no excuse whatsoever for partisan politics.
I will acknowledge that this may not have been Theresa May’s top consideration today when, in a speech marking a year since she became PM, she invited other parties to “come forward with your own views and ideas about how we can tackle these challenges as a country.” The zombie prime minister doesn’t even have the support of her party, let alone of parliament, and even with the ten DUP MPs propping up her government, her position is far too weak to ram through legislation of any significance (even more so now that Anne Marie Morris has been suspended for her use of unacceptable language.) Indeed, she said in her speech: the election result “wasn’t what I wanted.”
This is why May has extended a hand across the aisle and offered collaboration—so that real progress can be made. Not just on Brexit, but on seemingly intractable problems like low pay in the gig economy—another subject of her speech, in light of Matthew Taylor’s review on employment practices being published today.
Her decision to reach out may be induced by weakness and necessity, but it is actually a stroke of genius. By suggesting cooperation, May is daring Labour MPs to refuse her. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have spent their political careers rejecting compromise, choosing the purity of ideology over the tangible results of pragmatism every time. That is why any government led by them would crumble at the first thorny domestic or geopolitical quandary—not all 21st-century problems can be solved with 1970s dogma. If they turn away from this opportunity, they will be signalling to the country that they were never interested in actually changing it for the better.
But the rest of the party may be more realistic. On Brexit in particular, there is a sizable pro-Remain faction of the Labour party—most notably the 49 MPs who defied Corbyn to vote in favour of the Single Market amendment to the Queen’s Speech. Heavyweights like former work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper have called for a cross-party commission to negotiate Brexit, while former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna has gone so far as to start one himself. The fact that Tory MP Anna Soubry will also lead it shows there is scope for Labour MPs to unite with their pro-EU Conservative counterparts, not to halt Brexit altogether, but to effect real change about what post-Brexit Britain looks like.
It is also a chance for Labour MPs to propose solutions to other issues facing Britain. Stella Creasy won a massive victory with her vote two weeks ago, securing the rights of Northern Irish women to access abortion freely in England, with a strategy that won support from Lib Dems and moderate Tories (although her own party’s leadership was notably silent on her victory). Other Labour MPs should follow her lead, to confront challenges from the looming social care crisis to raising school achievement levels in low-income areas. The Taylor Review gives Labour the chance to have a say on shaping the future of work in this country. And we need Labour’s input—good ideas come from all points on the political spectrum.
May began her premiership by saying she wanted a “fairer” Britain. While she might be at odds with Labour about how to make that happen, it is nonetheless a goal that all politicians should be working towards. And it is not hard to see a cross-party bill on workers’ rights or social care, backed by Labour and Tory moderates, making it through this fractured parliament.
In short, this is a win-win situation for May. Despite the movement against her, she is PM until her party can come up with a viable alternative, and however this plays out, she will end up stronger than before. Either she exposes the opposition as stubborn partisans uninterested in the hard work of governing, or she turns her position of weakness into a platform for genuine collaborative reform. And if she plays it right, she may just be able to piece together a cross-party approach to Brexit that the divided country can get behind.
The zombie PM has a trick or two left in her yet.