‘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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‘Was it the Labour doorstep or the Labour smartphone that swung it for Jeremy?’, UK Election Analysis, 2017, 19 June 2017

Although we need more research before we can categorically confirm that it was ‘the young wot swung it for Labour’ at the General Election, it looks more than possible. And, although their support for Jeremy Corbyn was rooted in more than just tech-savvy campaigning, we can’t afford to dismiss its role in converting youthful enthusiasm into actual votes on the day.

One of the fascinating things about what happened on 8 June is that very few people saw it coming. Election analysts, going on past experience, figured that the young people pollsters managed to sample either wouldn’t bother to turn up on the day or, if they did, would end up simply adding to Labour’s support in seats it would win anyway.

Even more interesting, however, is that the parties and their candidates themselves had no more idea than the rest of us of what was about to hit them. Conservative campaigners on the ground only began to get worried a few days out – if they were lucky: many didn’t wake up to the wave that was about to break over them until groups of young voters began rocking up to polling stations on the day itself. And many Labour activists will admit privately that they didn’t have much more of a clue than their opposite numbers: just as pollsters find it notoriously difficult to get hold of young people – no landlines, not in (or awake) in the day, out in the evenings, not into party politics, etc. – so, too, do canvassers.

But this poses a puzzle. If canvassing didn’t ID these young Labour voters, then they weren’t brought to the polls by traditional means like ‘knocking up’ (i.e. by their names appearing on a list of promises, that list being checked against records taken by tellers at polling stations, and then, if they weren’t down as having voted yet, them being contacted and urged to do so).

That doesn’t mean, however, that Labour activists had no role whatsoever in getting the youth vote out. Rather, it means that we probably have to adopt a broader view of what constitutes activism nowadays – and adopt a slightly less sceptical view of the utility of online rather than offline campaign activity.

As part of an ESRC-funded project on party members run by me and Monica Poletti at Queen Mary University of London, along with Paul Webb, from the University of Sussex, we surveyed thousands of members of six UK parties: the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, UKIP and the Greens. Most of them were questioned just after the May 2015 general but, in Labour’s case, because of the huge influx of new members, we sent out an additional survey after the 2016 local elections.

Those surveys give us some idea of how Labour members compare to Conservative and other party members when it comes to different campaign activities. Cutting to the chase, what it reveals is that Labour is some way ahead of the Tories when it comes to online if not offline activities.

If we take offline activity first, then the two parties’ memberships are fairly evenly matched: leaving aside the thorny topic of over-claiming (which, importantly for our purposes, is no more likely to affect one party’s members more than the other’s), some 43% of Tory members claimed to have delivered leaflets at some stage during the 2015 general election, compared to 42% of Labour members. The proportion saying they did a bit of canvassing (either by phone or in person) was 36% for both parties.

If we then look at online, however, there are big differences. Some 40% of Tory members claimed to have liked something from their party or one of its candidates on Facebook at the 2015 election; but the figure for Labour members was 51%. As for tweeting or re-tweeting messages supporting their party or its candidates on Twitter, the figures were 26% and 37% respectively.

When we asked Labour members who joined the party after the 2015 General Election, many of them, no doubt, to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, we found they were much less likely than pre-2015 members to have leafletted or canvassed, although whether this was because they were less inclined to go ‘on the doorstep’, or because they hadn’t yet been asked to or because no-one gets as excited about local elections as they do about general elections, we don’t really know. But the proportion who’d campaigned on Facebook (54%) and Twitter (34%) was very similar to the one we found in 2015.

Could it be that it was this sort of activity, rather than the traditional kind, that mobilised younger voters to come out for Corbyn (and not May) on 8 June, explaining why their imminent appearance at polling stations wasn’t picked up beforehand? If so, ‘clicktivism’ is something we should take much more seriously from now on.

Originally published at http://www.electionanalysis.uk/uk-election-analysis-2017/section-4-parties-and-the-campaign/was-it-the-labour-doorstep-or-the-labour-smartphone-that-swung-it-for-jeremy/

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‘The Tory party is more useless than nasty’, Prospect, 20 June 2017.

A recently published review seems to sum the Conservative Party’s general election pretty well, no?

In fact, the portrait of the … campaign that emerges from these pages is that of a Titanic-like disaster: an epic fail made up of a series of perverse and often avoidable missteps by an out-of-touch candidate and her strife-ridden staff that turned “a winnable race” into “another iceberg-seeking campaign ship.” It’s the story of a wildly dysfunctional and “spirit-crushing” campaign that embraced a flawed strategy (based on flawed data) and that failed, repeatedly, to correct course. A passive-aggressive campaign that neglected to act on warning flares sent up by operatives on the ground … and that ignored … advice.

Except, of course, that it doesn’t sum up that campaign. I’ve lifted those words from the New York Times’s review of Shattered: Inside Hilary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes to make a point. And the point is this: as a political party you can have access to the greatest resources and some of the cleverest people on the planet, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily know what you’re doing or that you’re going to win—especially if the person in whom you’ve invested all that money and all that expertise simply isn’t up to it.

On the face of it, the Tory Party looks less likely than its rivals, and its counterparts in other countries, to land itself in that predicament. After all, its rules make it a good deal easier to ditch a leader who isn’t doing well than is the case in many other parties. They also limit the choice of candidates available to ordinary members voting in its leadership contests to two people who’ve been effectively vetted by MPs—who, in turn, have presumably had a pretty good chance to see what the candidates are made of at close quarters over a few years at Westminster.

But in reality, it doesn’t often work out like that. When leaders are struggling, they are allowed to carry on far longer than is sensible—so much so that the Tories can easily appear more useless than ruthless. And when they eventually do get replaced, the party often seems more intent on picking people for want of a better alternative, or for who they’re not, rather than for who they are.

Both of these principles applied in spades when it came to Mrs May getting the nod last year—as anyone who saw the BBC’s hilarious Theresa vs Boris on Sunday 18 June will attest.

Hers, just like Michael Howard’s back in 2005, was a faute de mieux coronation, designed to allow up a ‘grown-up’ to ‘get a grip’ on a situation that might otherwise have spun out of control after the party suddenly found itself rudderless—in May’s case after Cameron stepped down post referendum, and in Howard’s after the hapless Iain Duncan Smith had finally been put out of his misery following two whole years of it being painfully obvious to anybody paying attention that he was a total and utter embarrassment.

But in neither case was there any evidence whatsoever that the leader who’d just been handed the crown—without, remember, being required to show grassroots members what they could do on the stump—was going to be the kind of campaigner who could connect with people out there in the country.

Still, even if a full-blown leadership contest had allowed the party to field-test the Maybot, that’s no guarantee that it would necessarily have been on to a winner. And that’s because the winner of such contests is too often chosen primarily because they’re best placed not to charm the electorate but because they’re best placed to stop someone else: Major, it’s true, turned out (unlike Theresa May) to be capable of winning a (slim) majority and getting out on his soapbox but he was given the post-Thatcher nod in 1990 primarily because he wasn’t Heseltine; Hague got it in 1997 because he wasn’t Clarke; and Duncan Smith got it in 2001 because he wasn’t, again, Clarke—or Portillo.

Even David Cameron, the only Tory leader chosen in the last forty years who can claim to have secured the top job because he looked better able than his rival to win an election, also got it in part because he wasn’t that rival—an old hand who even those who didn’t think he was an arrogant shit thought he was a lazy one.

And who was that man? Why, none other than one David Davis, Brexit Secretary and currently the hot favourite to take over from Mrs May when eventually she and her party bow to the inevitable.

To the Conservative Party, which clearly isn’t as brilliant at this stuff as many people still seem determined to imagine, I say, ‘Good luck with that.’

Originally published at https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/the-tory-party-is-more-useless-than-nasty

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‘DEBATE: Does Theresa May’s failure to win a majority lay the path for another election before the end of the year? YES’, CityAM, 12 June 2017

Unless Theresa May surprises us all and makes the DUP “a big, open, and comprehensive offer” (copyright D. Cameron, 2010) of a full-blown coalition, then we’re going to see the Conservatives try to run a minority government dependent on Ulster Unionist support on “confidence and supply”. Even in countries where they’re taken for granted, like Denmark or Sweden, minority governments tend not to last as long as their majority equivalents. That’s likely to be even more the case in the UK where they’re a short-lived, and largely unloved aberration: think Harold Wilson in 1974 and John Major in the late nineties. No doubt many Tory MPs, especially those with small majorities, would like to put off the evil day – especially if Mrs May continues to lead them. Wiser heads will argue that the party would do better to control its own fate, put her out of her misery, and let a more convincing campaigner take the argument to an albeit reluctant country in the autumn.

Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/266370/debate-does-theresa-mays-failure-win-majority-lay-path

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‘Forget culture wars, the election was about power, cash and opportunity’, Observer, 11 June 2017

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth, “but to be young was very heaven!” OK, maybe that’s going a little too far, especially if you didn’t get a wink of sleep on Thursday night. But still. If you were aged 18-24 and you voted, then you probably felt pretty pleased with yourself on Friday morning. Younger voters, it seems, were the key to Jeremy Corbyn feeling like he has won when he has lost. Cue talk of the personality cult surrounding Labour’s sainted leader, of social media memes shared by tech-savvy digital natives and the revenge of young remainers angry that their future had been stolen from them while they weren’t looking (and in many cases, if they’re honest, not voting) in the EU referendum last summer.

But maybe something more fundamental – more Marxist even – is going on. Perhaps the apparent novelty of all the above risks distracting us from a rather more material explanation for what happened on Thursday and therefore for how politics will play out from now on.

Maybe we have grown so used to asserting that politics these days is all about culture rather than cash, about open v closed rather than state v market, that we’ve underestimated just how much the economy will continue to play a role, particularly when its largesse (or otherwise) is so unevenly distributed between classes and demographics. We’ve seen the evidence for that inequality of opportunity, of earning power and of ownership – some of us with our own eyes, some of us in the pages of this very newspaper. But this election, especially after seven years of austerity falling disproportionately on the young and “the just about managing”, may turn out to be a tipping point, something that takes us back to the future.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, much ink was spilled in trying to explain why the right rather than the left seemed to benefit electorally when careless capitalism was so clearly to blame. Certainly, one factor was the reputation of the former (more rhetorical than real, it has to be said) for balancing the books.

Keynes may have been correct to argue that the worst thing to do in the teeth of slowdown is to stop borrowing and spending. But convincing most of us that the nation’s economy is not the same as our household’s is a famously hard sell, hence the infuriatingly persuasive power of the repeated accusation that Labour had “maxed out the nation’s credit card”. But that was a long time ago, an emergency, whether imagined or real, that had to be dealt with, not an agreement on the part of voters to year after year of manifest underfunding of core public services.

Some on the right were clearly hoping that, after a while, this would become “the new normal”, accepted as an inevitable part of our daily lives, helping to keep taxes low and encouraging more and more of us to opt out into the private sector. But it turns out that, in Britain, at least, our sense of what the state can and should provide still runs pretty deep. As a result, just as has happened towards the end of every other period of Conservative government since the Second World War, a counter-reaction has begun to set in that anyone wanting to understand politics going forward has to understand. What is initially swallowed as good housekeeping eventually comes to seem like an ideological attempt to arrest the growth of the welfare state or even to shrink it, producing healthcare and education systems that increasingly, manifestly and tangibly fail to meet rising demand and expectations.

Previously, this pattern played out over a longer period of time: 13 years between 1951 and 1964; 18 between 1979 and 1997. But the current correction has kicked in after just seven. First, because of the speed and scale of the retrenchment attempted by the Conservativesafter 2010. Second, because that retrenchment has been going on (in marked contrast to the 1950s and 1980s) while growth, particularly real wage growth, has been anaemic to non-existent. And, third, especially (but not exclusively) for younger people, housing has become less and less affordable, employment less and less secure and personal debt an ever-growing, sometimes gnawing worry.

But there is one more, essentially political, reason for the process being short-circuited this time around. It’s not just because Theresa May chose to call the election three years earlier than she needed to. It’s that her predecessor, David Cameron, came to power posing as a new kind of Conservative, creating expectations by no means all of which he had any genuine commitment to fulfilling. For well-heeled, well-educated voters, those expectations revolved mainly around promises of a more social-liberal, cosmopolitan stance that would consolidate, even extend, the achievements of the Blair era on gay rights, gender and ethnic equality, justice, civil liberties and Europe.

With the signal exception of the last, as well as on immigration, those promises were basically met. But then along came Theresa May and the detoxification process looked as if it were not only stalling but being thrown into reverse.

Far more important, but far more frequently forgotten, were the expectations that Cameron’s Conservatism was all about embracing rather than rejecting the idea of the fabled centre ground, a claim neatly symbolised by his first setpiece party conference speech as Tory leader. “Tony Blair,” he cried, “once explained his priority in three words: education, education, education. I can do it in three letters… NHS.”

Allowing those words to ring more and more hollow, bleating about “ringfencing” and “record amounts of money” while people’s lived experience of increased waiting times and the rest told them something very different was going on, was something the Conservatives should never have allowed to happen. But they did, slipping back into presenting the essential choice in British politics as, to quote Maurice Saatchi, “efficient but cruel” Tories v “caring but incompetent” Labour.

That depressingly reductive war cry worked in 2015 – but only just. Which was why many genuinely centrist Conservatives, even those who rather regretted Cameron’s self-imposed passing last year, fooled themselves into thinking that a couple of speeches, one in Birmingham and one on the steps of Downing Street, meant Theresa May (she was the future once!) was going to be canny enough to press the reset button.

Brexit might mean Brexit, they reasoned, “control” might be brought back but so, too, would the message that the Conservatives genuinely believed in high-quality, well-funded public services. But a mixture of ideology and complacency – bolstered by the belief that Corbyn would be even easier to beat than Miliband, that banging on about Europe and immigration would win back Ukip voters, and that the Lib Dems were all but dead – seems to have put paid to the emergence of a genuinely post-Thatcherite Conservative party.

This suits Labour as it’s currently configured. Denouncing “the same old Tories” is the political equivalent of painting by numbers on Britain’s left. It neither requires nor generates any new thinking, especially when the weakness of other progressive parties – the Lib Dems, the Greens and, to a lesser extent, the SNP – gives Labour a virtual monopoly on outrage.

Meanwhile, its laudable, but hardly revolutionary, desire to show that it stands for “the many not the few” encourages Labour to adopt something-for-everyone policies focused on fairness rather than developing the kind of productive, high-skill social market economy likely to generate the wealth and security, and to pay for the public services, which most voters understandably crave.

All this means that we are confronted with the prospect of Britain’s two biggest parties being incapable of securing a parliamentary majority even for the second-best solutions they stand for. This might not be so bad if the electoral system and political geography that helps produce that situation did not also mean that the parties on their flanks lack the mainstream views and/or the Westminster seats to resolve it – in a manner consonant with the peaceful coexistence in Northern Ireland and the have-our-cake-and-eat-it Brexit that the majority of voters seem to want.

Politics now and in the future will revolve around interests as well as around identity, but it is badly blocked. After Corbyn’s victory of sorts and May’s equally equivocal defeat, talk of a new centre party has melted like snow in spring. That could be a pity: it might still turn out to be just what Britain needs to clear that blockage.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/10/forget-culture-wars-general-election-about-power-cash-opportunity

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