‘Pro-EU Tories flirting with rebellion need to put their votes where their mouths are’, Times Red Box, 6 September 2017.

How much more of this can we be expected to take? With each and every passing day, we seem to read more and more about the looming threat posed to the government’s supposedly precarious commons majority on Brexit by rebellious pro-European Tory MPs.

But, so far anyway, we’ve seen precious little sign that they’re really going to put their votes where their mouths are.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of Anna Soubry. And the same goes for Nicky Morgan and Dominic Grieve. They’re my kind of Tories, after all. I just hope they realise that there are only so many times they can allow themselves to be paraded as potential supporters of opposition amendments designed to soften or even scupper Brexit before they actually have to deliver rather than simply flatter to deceive.

I know, I know. I’m jumping the gun, right? The Repeal Bill has barely begun its journey through parliament so they haven’t yet had a chance to prove to doubting Thomases like me that they’re not all talk and no action. It’s also true, especially after the Syria vote and under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, that government defeats on arguably existential matters no longer imply no confidence, meaning that it’s less easy to convince rebels that doing the dirty (or the decent thing, depending on how you look at it) could trigger a general election.

But reading between the lines, and comparing today’s Tory pro-Europeans with, say, the Eurosceptic whipless wonders who made John Major’s life such a misery back in the nineties, you’ve got to wonder whether, when it comes to the crunch, they’ll actually have the courage of their convictions.

For one thing, they – like the Scots Tories who some think could also cause Mrs May problems on Europe – aren’t zealous obsessives on the outer fringes of either reality or the Conservative Party. They’re worried about Brexit precisely because they’re pragmatic, centrist politicians who don’t want their own government to take liberties with parliament or the devolved legislatures in order to promote a course of action that they fear will crash both the economy and its electoral fortunes.

For another, some of the potential rebels still harbour hopes that (though perhaps only in the dim, distant future and under a different prime minister) room might be found for them again (or in some cases for the first time) on the frontbench. Rebellion, as my Queen Mary colleague Phil Cowley and his various collaborators have shown, isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to the graveyard of ambition. But there’s a big difference between making a handy name for yourself by being an occasional pain in the proverbial and doing something frankly unforgivable when colleagues who share your reservations have agreed to swallow them and take one for the team.

At the moment anyway, it looks to me like the Tory pro-Europeans’ game-plan is to flirt with rebellion in order to wring concessions out of the government, either by persuading it to table its own amendments or, if that proves impossible, to make verbal assurances in debate to take their concerns into account later on. My question for them is whether they really think that flirting – and those verbal assurances – will ultimately be enough.

So far, we’ve seen a lot of huff and puff from Ms Soubry and her ilk.

But unless they take the opportunity, at least once – even if it’s only on the most innocuous of amendments – to actually blow the house down then their whips, and the rest of us, are going to realise they’re sheep in wolves clothing: big talkers whose baaa turns out to be so much worse than their bite.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/pro-eu-tories-flirting-with-rebellion-need-to-put-their-votes-where-their-mouths-are-cp7vhwlqz

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‘Blue on blue: the 10 greatest Tory feuds’, New Statesman, 14 August 2017.

The Conservatives have descended into infighting over Europe, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone – they have been at each other’s throats many times before. The Tory expert Tim Bale provides a guide to the most acrimonious feuds, starting in 1945…

10) Winston Churchill v Lord (Fred) Woolton

You’ve probably never heard of Lord Woolton – of course you haven’t. And that’s just the way Winston hoped it would turn out. The two men started out on pretty good terms. After all, it was Churchill who appointed his wartime minister of food to the chairmanship of the Tory party in 1945.

It proved a shrewd appointment. Woolton increased the membership and raised a shedload of money, which helped Churchill win office again in 1951. But by that time, every­one who worked with either of them knew that they didn’t see eye to eye, although the tension tended to bubble rather than boil over. It was partly down to jealousy on both men’s parts, but also because Churchill’s enthusiasm for an electoral pact with the Liberal Party went far beyond what Woolton (and most of his colleagues and the Tory grass roots) thought was necessary or wise. The result? Churchill is mythologised and Woolton largely forgotten.

9) Anthony Eden v Winston Churchill

Remember how Gordon Brown kept nagging Tony Blair to stand down so he could take over, and how Blair kept stringing him along? The relationship between Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill followed a similar dynamic. Many Tories assumed that Churchill, after regaining the premiership in 1951, would promptly hand over to the man widely tipped as his successor. But Churchill clung on to office despite increasingly serious concerns about his health and, indeed, his fitness to govern.

Eventually, he bowed to the inevitable but let it be known to a few close associates that he feared Eden would make a hash of things. He was right. After Eden’s handsome victory at the 1955 election, it only took weeks for the new prime minister’s high-handed manner to grate on his cabinet colleagues, with the result that few were upset when, after the humiliation of Suez, he resigned on the grounds of ill health.

8) The Tory establishment v Rab Butler

If it’s tough at the top, it can be even tougher getting there – or not getting there. When Eden went, many expected Richard Austen Butler, familiarly known as Rab, to succeed him. They were wrong.

After consultations among the party – there was no such thing as a leadership contest back then – it was Harold Macmillan who “emerged” as Tory leader and therefore prime minister. Butler felt the slight deeply but continued to serve loyally.

When Macmillan, who had won an impressive victory at the 1959 general election, resigned in 1963 after the Profumo affair, it looked as if Butler would finally get his chance. But he was again denied it by the “customary processes” that (allegedly with Macmillan’s help) handed the leadership and the premiership to Alec Douglas-Home, who had to renounce his place in the House of Lords to claim his prize.

Not everyone was pleased, and two high-profile ministers pointedly refused to serve under him. Enoch Powell was one of them. The other (better known at the time) was Iain Macleod, who used his position as editor of the Spectator (think George Osborne but still in parliament) to write an exposé in which he claimed that an Old Etonian “magic circle” had manipulated the consultation process to block Butler in favour of one of their own.

7) Enoch Powell v Ted Heath

Powell was always seen as a bit of an oddity – albeit a rather brilliant one – by his colleagues. When the Tories held their first democratic leadership contest in 1965, he came third with the support of just 15 MPs, far behind the winner, Ted Heath, with 150.

His fellow MPs knew that Powell was becoming increasingly concerned about what he saw as the long-term downsides of mass immigration from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian subcontinent. But both the content and the tone of his “rivers of blood” speech in April 1968 came as an enormous shock. Ted Heath never forgave or, apparently, even spoke to Powell again. Yet Powell – a Thatcherite and a Euro­sceptic avant la lettre – was, according to contemporary polling, one of the most popular politicians in the country. He then spent most of the next five years opposing Heath’s ultimately successful attempt to get Britain into Europe. In 1974, Powell quit the Commons and urged people to vote Labour.

6) Ted Heath v Margaret Thatcher

A true grudge match. Heath only appointed Thatcher to his shadow cabinet and then his cabinet because he felt obliged to give something to a woman, and she was by far the most talented available. She stuck loyally to her education brief during his 1970-74 government, although privately she thought his government was a disaster. After he lost both of the 1974 general elections, she had the temerity  to challenge and then beat Heath for the leadership the following year.

He never forgave her, descending into what became known as “the long sulk”. She refused to offer him an olive branch or a way back into high office. They died unreconciled.

5) Margaret Thatcher v John Major

Thatcher, like Heath, bought into the myth of her own indispensability and was devastated when her parliamentary party decided in November 1990 that she had passed her sell-by date. Fearing that she might be succeeded by Michael Heseltine, she alighted on her chancellor, John Major, as the man most likely to stop Hezza. But things soon began to turn sour as (according to Thatcher) her anointed successor proceeded to stray from the path of true Conservatism. Their relationship grew increasingly strained as she grew more Eurosceptic and made her displeasure ever more public.

4) Team Hague v Team Portillo

For sheer comedy value, this one had it all. Michael Portillo’s dream of taking over from John Major after the Tories were blown out of the water by New Labour in 1997 came crashing down as he lost his seat in the landslide. William Hague got the job, but it wasn’t too long before Portillo made it back in a by-election, after which there was much talk – at least among Hague’s paranoid praetorian guard – about the Portillistas scheming to snatch the top job for their Iberian icon. Every policy announcement, media interview and speech by the shadow chancellor was analysed for disloyalty (and for signs that he might be making a move).

Meanwhile Team Portillo grew increasingly frustrated by the right-wing populist thrust of Hague’s operation and its sheer incompetence. At the time, Tony Blair was walking all over the Conservative Party, so their infighting was a fine illustration of Sayre’s law: “In any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”

3) Iain Duncan Smith v almost everyone

By 2001, Michael Portillo was privately convinced that the Tory party wasn’t ready for the modernisation that he thought was crucial to reviving its electoral fortunes. So after that year’s election defeat, he stood for the leadership with a measure of reluctance. What happened proved him right. Portillo had his youthful gay experiences dragged up by his opponents and didn’t make it into the ballot of grass-roots Tory members, who promptly chose the right-wing “headbanger” Iain Duncan Smith over the cuddly Europhile Ken Clarke.

As many predicted, Duncan Smith was a disaster and fast became a national joke.  He was eventually defenestrated in a confidence vote after party donors made it clear that his time was up.

2) David Cameron (and the Notting Hill set) v Derek Conway and others

Remember Conway? The MP for Ted Heath’s old constituency? A good mate of David Davis? Got in trouble with the parliamentary authorities for employing his son as his parliamentary assistant while he was a full-time student? In 2004, after a story went round that the leadership wanted rid of “bed-blocking”, “old”, “suntanned faces” in the parliamentary party, Conway appeared on the BBC to denounce what he called the “Notting Hill set”– the modernisers around David Cameron. Cameron had the last laugh. In 2008, the committee on standards and privileges produced a damning report on Conway and the Tory leader withdrew the whip from him – no doubt more in sadness than in anger…

1) George Osborne v Theresa May

Throughout the coalition years, there were bitter policy disagreements between Osborne and May – particularly when she, as home secretary, insisted on trying (in vain) to cut immigration in ways that he, as chancellor, considered politically risky and economically illiterate. But then the Brexit vote happened, not only foiling Osborne’s plans to take over from Cameron but giving May a chance to humiliate him by refusing to offer him a cabinet post.

That led Osborne to the editorship of the London Evening Standard, which he has turned into a bully pulpit, helped by knowing where pretty much all the bodies are buried. Given that the Prime Minister presumably has only a limited shelf life after she blew the general election, let’s enjoy this feud while we can.

Originally published at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/08/blue-blue-10-greatest-tory-feuds

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‘A new centrist pro-EU party can be a catalyst even if it flops’, Financial Times, 12 August 2017.

Journalists bemoaning the loss of yet another colleague to PR or the civil service sometimes talk about that hack-to-flak transformation as “going over to the dark side”. James Chapman, who in 2015 was persuaded by George Osborne to give up the political editorship of the maniacally Eurosceptic Daily Mail and become director of communications at the Treasury, might not have seen it that way initially.

But a short and (one assumes) unhappy post-referendum stint as chief of staff to David Davis at the Department for Exiting the European Union seems to have persuaded him that the Tories have become the bad guys of British politics.

After quitting Whitehall, Mr Chapman has become an outspoken champion for the idea not only that the UK must pull back from Brexit but that doing so requires the formation of a brand new, pro-European, socially liberal, centrist party. So far this idea has lit up social media but failed to attract serious support, even from former prime minister Tony Blair, long rumoured to be flirting with such a démarche. At first glance, one can see why.

The Liberal Democrats, led by an unashamedly anti-Brexit heavyweight, Vince Cable, can argue that the country already has such a party. Conservatives hoping they can somehow achieve a soft Brexit — or at least a soft landing via a potentially infinite transition — cannot be seen to be tempted: otherwise they would lose what traction they still have. The same goes for those Labour MPs talking about cross-party working in order to avoid a hard Brexit.

Others, veterans of previous splits, are more vocally dismissive, with some of the liveliest and most powerful pooh-poohing coming from Lord (Andrew) Adonis. Writing in Progress, a safe haven for Labour’s embattled moderates, Adonis argues that the searing experience in the 1980s of the breakaway Social Democratic party, of which he was an early member, constitutes a dire warning rather than a shining example. Anyone toying with the idea of a new party dedicated, as Roy Jenkins, patron saint of pro-EU liberal social democracy, and founding member of the SDP once put it, to “breaking the mould” of British politics and, in so doing, stopping Brexit before it is too late, should beware.

Even in this era of voter volatility, the obstacles to success — atavistic tribal loyalties, an electoral system that punishes third parties, and limited support for cosmopolitan internationalism even among the majority of the electorate that sees itself as centrist — are every bit as forbidding as Lord Adonis says.

But what actually constitutes success? Clearly, the SDP failed in the sense of realising its founders’ hope that it would replace a Labour party chronically beholden to the trade unions and socialist nostalgia among activists and MPs.

But, by scaring the living daylights out of some of those trade unions, activists and MPs in the early years of its shortlived existence, it helped those who decided not to jump ship (and whose loyalty to Labour could not therefore be questioned) to win their party back to a more European, more moderate centre-left stance.

Likewise, the UK Independence party (that won far fewer defectors from the Conservatives than the SDP did from Labour, and never came close to matching its opinion poll highs) succeeded by persuading enough Tories, at both the top and the bottom of the party, that it presented such a threat on the right that Nigel Farage’s populist Euroscepticism would have to be aped rather than attacked. Ukip cannot now boast a single MP, but its job is done.

A new party, then, might well be a suicide mission — but one that succeeds by acting as a catalyst for change in its closest competitor. That change may not prove permanent or even that profound — think of it as a nudge rather than a nuclear explosion. At a tipping point, however, a nudge is sometimes all that is needed.

Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/530de0c6-7eae-11e7-ab01-a13271d1ee9c

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‘Death and foxes: why certain issues have the power to turn a political campaign’, Prospect, 7 August 2017

British Election Study research released last week not only confirmed that the campaign made a big difference in 2017, but also gave us an insight into the issues that may have changed voters’ minds.

Two or three things on the list—neatly illustrated by an animated wordcloud—stood out straight away to anyone who’s been following the discussion over what went wrong with Theresa May’s campaign, particularly among those who helped her fight it on the ground.

To those who don’t follow Tory politics as closely as sad-sacks like me, combing through the below-the-line comments on posts on ConservativeHome probably sounds about as tempting as taking a swan-dive into sewage. But everyone ought to try it sometime. Reading the pretty-much unmediated views of Tory activists often counters the common wisdom as much as it confirms it: they’re not all ridiculously right-wing headbangers. Many of them care as deeply about the welfare of the majority of the people living in this country as self-styled progressives do; they just have a different view of how best to promote it.

What those activists also care a lot about, of course, is winning elections, and winning them well. So—surprise, surprise—they’re not feeling too happy right now. Indeed, some of the most interesting stuff on the site recently revolves around what put off those voters who, they’d hoped, might deliver their party a massive majority on 9 June. These discussions are conducted both above- and below-the-line by people who spent much of their free time this Spring canvassing for the Conservatives.

Interestingly—and, for academics and pollsters, reassuringly—the testimony of those who help the Tories out at elections (some of them members, some of them probably just supporters) dovetails with much of what the professional survey research seems to have uncovered.

The issues that mattered

Although a little reluctant to admit it, those posting are willing to concede (or at least imply) that the Maybot’s lacklustre performance mattered, as did her refusal to turn up to the big TV debate that Corbyn agreed to do at the last minute: a decision which made her look as if she were running scared both from him and from the voters. (Although, given her infamously patronising ‘magic money tree’ response to a nurse who did get to question her later on live TV, one can perhaps understand why she took that risk.)

Also important, predictably enough, was the dementia tax: not just because it was proposed in the first place, and not just because the ensuing U-turn made May look ‘weak and wobbly’ rather than ‘strong and stable’, but because May then went onto insult voters’ intelligence with her near-maniacal insistence that ‘nothing has changed’.

That move, however, was not the most mystifying of the election as far as Tory activists were concerned. That particular prize goes to a mastersroke neatly encapsulated in a below-the-line comment from ‘ManFromKent’ on a post-election ConHome post on what went wrong:

Young Voter: ‘We can’t afford homes, we’re saddled with student debt, public services seem to be falling apart, what are you going to do?’

Conservative manifesto: ‘We’re going to give rich people the chance to rip small animals apart for fun, like they used to do before you were born.’

Not the most compelling argument, is it?

No way was fox hunting the most important issue of #GE2017. But, according to those wearing what passed for Conservative boots on the ground in May and June, the announcement that the PM would be backing a free vote on the issue came up again and again on the doorstep, as well as on Facebook.

What future campaigns can learn

That it did so tells us something worth knowing about issues that are capable of swinging a campaign this way or that—if not in isolation, then as part of a package of ideas.

May’s support for hunting with dogs mattered because it enjoyed a campaign half-life even after it disappeared from the headlines after a day or two. In part that was because the activity, in and of itself, is incredibly unpopular.

But it was also because the Prime Minister’s apparent support for it suggested the Tories were, despite their insistence to the contrary, still led by a bunch of people who didn’t really seem to care too much about the real concerns of twenty-first century Britain. The same went for the dementia tax and debate debacles.

None of us knows whether predictions are still worth making in such volatile times. But if they are, and if we’re thinking about the issues that could turn an election or a referendum campaign, then we should surely keep our eyes peeled and our ears cocked for proposals that are not only tangible and/or emotive enough to cut through the media fog, but which also speak volumes (or can be made to speak volumes) about those advocating or opposing them.

Precisely what those issues will turn out to be is likely to become apparent only as any campaign to come kicks off. But, in the meantime, feel free to start guessing…

Originally published at https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/taxes-and-foxes-why-certain-issues-have-the-power-to-turn-a-political-campaign

 

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‘Think you know who will be the next PM? Think again . . . and again’, Times, 11 July 2017

A year ago this week, Theresa May became prime minister. She may not last much longer. Her authority is not so much seeping away as haemorrhaging. Her credibility (and some say her confidence) is shot. Potential successors are being touted in the media and may even be “on manoeuvres”. The bookies have their favourites and so do the pundits. But maybe they should be more careful.

Tory leadership contests often throw up some surprises. A glance through the history books shows us Harold Macmillan robbing Rab Butler, Butler losing out again to Alec Douglas-Home, Margaret Thatcher beating Edward Heath and Willie Whitelaw, and John Major snatching it from Michael Heseltine. This is the party, too, remember, that gave the crown to William Hague and to Iain Duncan Smith rather than to Ken Clarke or Michael Portillo, and to David Cameron rather than David Davis.

It is also the party that gave the leadership to May – and without a contest. In hindsight, that decision might look like a bad one, yet it still seems somehow inevitable. In fact, few would have predicted it the year before.

Cast your mind back to the early summer of 2015. David Cameron had just won the general election and surprised everyone by doing so with an overall majority. Meanwhile, those of us working on the Economic and Social Research Council-funded party members project were busy conducting surveys of the Tory (and Labour, Lib Dem, Green, Ukip and SNP) grassroots.

One question we thought it was worth asking those Tory members was who they’d like to see replace Mr Cameron whenever he stepped down, leaving it up to them to come up with their own suggestions rather than pick from a pre-cooked list of names. The results show how difficult it is to pick a winner – and even who’ll have the brass neck to stand at all – before a contest actually kicks off.

They’re also a reminder, incidentally, to the know-alls among us that politics can be embarrassingly unpredictable. One of our 1,150 respondents, for instance, wrote “Stupid question: Cameron has just started a five-year term”. Anyone who’s convinced that there will be a contest this year before Christmas, or even the autumn, take note.

Ultimately, it’s the numbers that are most interesting, even if they, too, are something of a cautionary tale.

In our survey, conducted just a few weeks after the 2015 general election, a refreshingly honest “don’t know” came in second at 25 per cent, beaten by (you guessed it, no doubt) Boris Johnson on 29 per cent.

The eventual real-world victor, Theresa May, did only half as well as Boris, garnering 15 per cent support, putting her (rather deliciously) on exactly the same plane as her new best nemesis, George Osborne.

BoJo, Osbo and Mayo (too much?) were followed by Sajid Javid on just 4 per cent, which may mean the young-ish pretender did the right thing not to stand in the immediate post-Brexit contest. Mind you, precious little sign of a grassroots groundswell didn’t in the end put off Michael Gove, who was mentioned by just 2 per cent of our sample of members – the same level of support that went, incidentally, to David Davis.

Still, Mr Gove did way better than Andrea Leadsom. Britain’s best known matriarchal patriot may have thrown her hat into the ring alongside Mr Gove’s last year as the supposed leader of a putative grassroots insurgency (who can forget their showcase march on parliament?). But just a year before she’d been suggested as a replacement for Mr Cameron by precisely one solitary member. Just goes to show: you’ve got to be in it to, well, not win it exactly, but you know what I mean.

David Davis, of course, didn’t even stand last year. Best known back then as the bloke who blew it back in 2005 with busty beauties and a bad speech, he was at that stage languishing on the backbenches, his best days thought to be behind him. Now, in the wake of Mrs May’s fateful decision to bump-start his career last year, he’s apparently the favourite to replace her. Well, perhaps – but don’t bet on it.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/think-you-know-who-will-be-the-next-pm-think-again-and-again-mkk6v0023

 

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‘The Tories’ deal with the DUP papers over the cracks, but it can’t work miracles’, Telegraph, 26 June 2017.

The ten parliamentary votes provided to Theresa May by the Democratic Unionist Party come at a pretty high price. Not only do they work out at a hundred million pounds apiece in extra spending; there’s also the reputational cost to the Conservatives of parting with cash the country supposedly doesn’t have in order to secure the backing of a party most British voters don’t much like the look of.

On top of that comes the suggestion that perhaps they needn’t have bothered – that the DUP could have been relied upon to keep a beleaguered Theresa May in office anyway, given that the alternative, a possible Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn, is anathema to it.

Well maybe. But maybe not. And that is in some ways the point.

Right now, the DUP, whatever its views of the relative merits of Mrs May and Mr Corbyn, clearly enjoys what is known in the rational choice jargon employed by political scientists interested in government formation as tremendous “walkaway value”.  Its ten MPs figure, probably correctly, that the Conservatives need them more than they need the Conservatives.

This isn’t, after all, a one-shot game. If the DUP were to allow its bluff to be called by the Tories, and simply troop meekly through the lobbies after its demands were rejected, it would lack all credibility were it to find itself in this or a similar situation ever again. Assuming, therefore, that it would fold for fear of letting in Labour would be very foolish indeed.

What matters most to the Tories at the moment – and matters much more than money, obviously – is signalling that the plug won’t be pulled on the government at any minute, at least in the short-to-medium term.  Brexit makes that all the more vital since it involves sending that message both to backbenchers who need to know that there will be no backsliding and EU member states who need to know they’re not wasting their time negotiating with a partner that might suddenly disappear.

Confidence and supply arrangements, which have become more and more frequent when countries find themselves pushed by parliamentary arithmetic toward minority government, are designed effectively to lock “support parties” like the DUP into deals that discourage them, having received an initial payoff, from further attempts at blackmail later on.

More mundanely, but just as importantly, confidence and supply arrangements lower transaction costs for both sides involved.  Minority government can involve an almost day-by-day search for workable cross-party compromise across a huge range of domestic and international policy. Unless the really big stuff has already been taken care of by being included in the arrangement then that work on the small stuff can become simply too exhausting.  And that’s when mistakes get made, tempers get frayed, and people do and say things that they can’t put right.

That’s not to say, of course, that the Tories and the DUP won’t fall out with each other anyway.  “Contract parliamentarism”, as it’s known in the jargon, can be useful. But it can’t work miracles.

Originally published at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/26/tories-deal-dup-papers-cracks-cant-work-miracles/

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‘EU referendum: one year on – political parties’, UK in a Changing Europe, 26 June 2017.

As far as the UK’s political parties were concerned, last summer’s EU referendum was a bit like one of those tag-team wrestling matches you see on TV. Although the bout began with everyone thinking they knew who was on which side, by the end of it no-one in the ring – nor, for that matter, in the audience – was sure anymore.

Everyone knew, of course, that the Conservative Party was divided on the issue. But it wasn’t until the bell went and the seconds stepped out of the ring that we (or indeed he) knew that David Cameron was going to be fighting not only Nigel Farage but also Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

And while no-one expected Jeremy Corbyn to get into the ring at the same time as David Cameron, most people had assumed he’d do his bit. Instead, he spent most of the bout in the dressing room – a decision which allowed grapple-fan favourites like Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart to give the distinct, but misleading, impression that Labour’s MPs were as divided on whether to leave or remain as their Tory counterparts.

True, the country’s smaller parties managed to hold things together all the way through to the end. No-one could doubt, for instance, whose side UKIP (which, as usual, forearm smashed above its weight media-wise) was on. The same could be said for the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens. And, although no-one was paying anywhere near as much attention as they should have been, both
the DUP (pro-Brexit) and Sinn Fein (anti) behaved entirely as predicted.

From referendum to election

After the referendum, things seemed to become a little clearer – at least on the Tory side. The Remainers either retired hurt (David Cameron and George Osborne) or else acted as if they’d always been Leavers (Theresa May and virtually everyone else) – not only to the extent of insisting on a so-called hard Brexit but even talking about “no deal being better than a bad deal.” A handful of Europhiles (kudos, Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan) refused to drink the Kool-Aid but they were cast into outer-darkness (and booted off the frontbench) as “Remoaners”, replaced by veteran Europhobes like Liam Fox and David Davis.

Labour, however, found it much harder to pull off the collective amnesia trick. Jeremy Corbyn’s AWOL act during the referendum campaign made his critics in the Parliamentary Labour Party even angrier with him than they already were. Interestingly, however, he seemed to escape any censure whatsoever from his youthful fan-base outside Westminster, even though many of them were furious that the UK had voted to leave the EU and therefore might reasonably have wondered if their hero could have done more to avoid that outcome.

Had Labour MPs not lost their heads and triggered a premature leadership contest, perhaps things would have been different. But they did, thereby ensuring that any of Corbyn’s extra-parliamentary army who shared their suspicions that he (and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell) had secretly wanted Brexit all along promptly forgot all about their reservations in the rush to defend “Jeremy” against “the chicken coup”

With Corbyn re-elected, Labour MPs found themselves being asked to go against everything almost all of them had ever stood for by voting in favour of the government triggering Article 50, thereby setting the clock ticking on the UK’s departure from the EU. Most of them managed to swallow their objections and their pride, reasoning that it was the only way of reconciling the difference between their views and the significant support for Leave in many Labour-held constituencies that looked vulnerable either to UKIP or to the Conservatives as a result. That said,nearly 50 MPs voted with their consciences and in many cases (and surely not coincidentally) with their largely Remain-supporting constituents.

In the wake of Article 50, Labour’s position on what it wanted out of the Brexit it had just voted for remained, to put it mildly, a little unclear. Had it fully reconciled itself to rejecting freedom of movement and therefore leaving the Single Market? What exactly was the have-our-cake and-eat-it solution that it was proposing if it wasn’t “the Norway option”? Would Labour MPs really dare to vote down whatever deal (or no deal) Theresa May eventually agreed with the EU in two years’ time? No-one, not even Labour’s spokesman on the issue, Keir Starmer, seemed to know for sure.

The election

All this confusion, the Lib Dems hoped, would see their fortunes revive as the standard-bearer for “the 48%”. But their prayers proved to be in vain as the bulk of Remain voters, even those who continued to hope Brexit could be avoided, seemed destined, at elections anyway, to stick with the devils they knew rather than throw their lot in with Tim Farron.

Brexit’s biggest loser, however, was obviously UKIP. Farage, who stepped down to spend less time with his family and more time with his new best friend, Donald Trump, proved predictably irreplaceable. Meanwhile, Mrs May was offering his voters not only more Brexit and less immigration, but also grammar schools, a war on wind turbines, and whole lot more besides.

Little wonder, then, that she belatedly bought her advisors’ arguments that she should capitalise on the collapse of the Conservatives’ right-wing rival by calling an early general election – a contest which, by delivering her a bigger majority, would, paradoxically, make her less dependent on her own Eurosceptic ultras at Westminster.

It didn’t, of course, turn out that way. Six disastrous weeks later, the Conservatives were returned to Westminster with fewer MPs and no parliamentary majority, stuck, when it comes to Brexit, between Scylla (Tory “headbangers” insisting on full-speed ahead to a Hard Brexit) and Charybdis (the DUP which wants out of the EU but without a return to a hard border with the
South).

Whether, in such rough seas, Mrs May or her successor can keep the ship afloat for two full years of tough negotiations with the EU27 is anyone’s guess.

Originally published at http://ukandeu.ac.uk/eu-referendum-one-year-on-political-parties/

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