It was the Irish question that did for the original Liberal party, and now it is the European question that has done for the Conservative and Unionist party.
In a way, considering the May Government has had to enter into a forced alliance with the DUP in order to remain in power – an alliance May herself must surely view as one made in Hell, as does most of the rest of the electorate – one could say the Irish question has resurfaced in a slightly different form, and allied itself with the European question.
The scale of May’s defeat, for it is a defeat and not a mere setback, can be summed up in a number:
Amber Rudd, the current Home Secretary and one of the most senior Cabinet members, avoided defeat in her constituency by a mere 346 votes. One can quite imagine that in the next election – almost certainly to occur by the end of the year – she will be defeated. The Tory grandees are furious with May, the electorate are self-evidently out of love with both her and the Tories, so it’s by-by Theresa.
But not just yet. More a case of the long goodbye, because the Tories cannot afford a leadership contest right now.
The ideal, for them, would be another coronation and no protracted leadership contest. The rank and file would not stand for that. May will be a caretaker Prime Minister. Her job will be to cobble together an alliance that will keep the Conservatives in government. The alliance with the DUP will not last, the DUP being too illiberal for most of the Conservative MPs, indeed most of the electorate outside of Northern Ireland.
For a moment consider recent political history. In 2015, apparently against all the odds-although predicted by me-the Conservative party, led by David Cameron, won the most seats in the House of Commons and thus formed the new government. You will recall the Lib Dems and the Conservatives had previously formed a coalition government, defeating the Brown Government. There were several reasons why Cameron was able to win outright, one of them being the promise to hold a referendum on the question of EU membership. Although this could be seen as an exercise in true democracy, in reality it was a calculated party political decision. The plan was simple: win a resounding ‘remain’ vote, and thus silence once and for all silence those troublesome backbenchers and some senior Tories who were firmly against EU membership. At the time the official Tory position was firmly in favour of continued EU membership. This anti-EU cabal had caused Margaret Thatcher problems in the 80s, John Major problems in the 90s, various leaders problems during the opposition years, and Cameron problems whilst he was Prime Minister in the coalition government.
The plan went badly wrong. It is difficult to decide which was worse, the remain campaign or the leave campaign. For a number of reasons, a slim majority voted to leave the EU. Cameron promptly resigned, and the Tory Grandees elected May -or rather crowned her- leader of the Conservative and Unionist party. For her, this was to prove a poisoned chalice.
For calculated party political reasons May decided to call an unnecessary general election. Ostensibly the reason given was to provide her with a clear mandate to conduct the Brexit negotiations. In reality, unlike earlier Tory Prime Ministers, she was now experiencing difficulty controlling those Tory MPs who were against Brexit. With the polls telling her she would win a resounding victory, she obviously reasoned that this would once and for all silence those backbenchers and cabinet members who were opposed to official Conservative policy. Is this beginning to sound a little like history repeating itself?
Once again the campaign was badly botched.
1) having trumpeted her merits as a ‘strong and stable leader, following the publication of the manifesto she promptly executed several spectacular U-turns when opinion polls indicated several items in said manifesto were deeply unpopular.
2) having been told the repeated mantra of being a ‘strong and stable leader’ was beginning to wear thin with the electorate, she-or perhaps her advisers-came up with a new one. Brexit means Brexit. When pressed, she was unable to say exactly what this meant, apart from the obvious – it meant Brexit.
3) either she or some backroom genius came up with the slogan, ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’. Just possibly this was one of the final nails in the coffin. It thoroughly alarmed those who would have preferred to remain in the EU, but had just about accepted the UK was on the way out.
By now virtually all the pensioners in this country were thoroughly alarmed by the prospect of reduced pensions in the future, and when after a spectacular U-turn on the question of capping payments for care, they were told that if they found themselves in a position where they had to pay for their own care, she would graciously allow them to keep the last hundred thousand pounds to leave to their families, and they would not have to sell the family home whilst one spouse was still alive, that was just about the end of the story.
Following the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, May came out with yet another populist slogan. ‘Enough is enough’. Most of the electorate wondered exactly what she meant by that, and in any event were by now deeply wary of populist politicians.
In the meantime, Jeremy Corbyn, who had previously been regarded as completely unelectable, began to sound as though he was making some sense. Granted the figures in the Labour manifesto did not add up, but then again neither did those of the Tories. Corbyn spoke about social justice, equality, and made several promises it was unlikely he would be able to keep in the event of actually winning the election.
The gap between the Conservatives and Labour narrowed. The Conservatives panicked.
May refused to debate face-to-face with Corbyn, and when questioned seemed wooden and evasive. Corbyn on the other hand came across as a decent sort of bloke, sincere if a bit too far to the left, and managed to brush aside slightly dubious connections with both the IRA and Hamas. When asked about their respective negotiating stances with the EU, May repeated her’ no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra, whilst Corbyn with a previously unsuspected diplomatic aplomb, simply quietly repeated ‘there will be a deal’. The gap between the two parties continued to narrow.
So now what?
The Tories, now a minority government, are terrified of holding another election in the near future. They suspect, and I suspect they are correct, the electorate will banish them to the opposition benches. The problem is things cannot just drift on for several months whilst the leadership question is settled. Not only are negotiations with the EU about to start, and the clock really is ticking on that one, but the alliance with the DUP is unlikely to be successful for a number of reasons. May is seen by those within the Conservative party, the electorate, and the EU negotiating team, as having little or no authority. She has been unable to carry out any meaningful reshuffle of senior Cabinet posts, she faces if not an actual rebellion amongst Scottish Conservatives at least a firmness of opinion bolstered by electoral success north of the border, and she has alienated those on both sides of the Brexit debate.
The reality of the situation in which she finds herself is that the DUP will insist on a soft Brexit, which for her represents yet another stunning U-turn. To be strictly accurate, the DUP position borders on the absurd. Whilst they were the only party in Northern Ireland which supported Brexit, and appear to support May’s tough negotiating stance, they are insistent they want a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. They fear if this is not achieved there will be a resumption of violence, and most likely they are correct. In order to achieve a soft border it will be necessary for the UK to remain within the Common Customs Area. The EU will be amenable to that, however they will also insist that for the UK to remain within the aforesaid area there will be a price. The price will be freedom of movement, something a large part of the electorate are deeply suspicious of.
I was somewhat bemused to find myself in agreement with at least some of the things that Jeremy Corbyn came out with. I am equally bemused to find myself in agreement with Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Féin, when he cautions Arlene Foster to be aware of any alliance with a Westminster party, because history shows that any such alliance usually ends in tears for the Northern Ireland party concerned.
The people of the UK are still hopelessly split over the question of Brexit. The Conservative and Unionist party are hopelessly split over the question of Brexit. The Labour Party are hopelessly split over the question of Brexit. The only political party, or rather parties, which are not split over the question of Brexit are in no particular order the Lib Dems, the Greens, and UKIP. The latter is now largely irrelevant, and in any event has been shown to be a ‘one trick pony’. The Conservatives are drifting apart, some remaining in the political centre and some drifting to the far right. The Labour Party is drifting apart, some remaining in a Blairite centre position, and some drifting to the far left. The UK electorate as a whole is fed up with austerity, mainly because it hasn’t worked, remains polarised over Brexit, or at least what form Brexit should take if it must happen and is fed up with politicians who so obviously lie through their teeth.
The time is quite rapidly approaching when there will be a reconfiguration of British politics. In much the same way that the Liberal party merged with the Social Democratic Party to form the Lib Dems in the 1980s, so a new centrist party will emerge and will come to dominate British politics for many years. This is why I feel that Theresa Mary May could well be the last Conservative and Unionist Prime Minister.