As Brexit looms – the ultimate essay deadline crisis – the Conservative Party is staring into an abyss. A period of relative calm was ushered in via a deal with the DUP but Theresa May’s position remains difficult and precarious. Money for Ulster has unravelled Tory unity over austerity – which was, until the election, an uncontested orthodoxy in Conservative circles. If the Government can pay £1.5 billion to Northern Ireland in order to stay in power, why can they not find a few more pounds and pence to make MPs’ post-bags a little less miserable? On one side of this argument are Boris Johnson and the Secretaries of State for Health and for Education. On the other sits Philip Hammond and the last remaining Cameroons – convinced that without austerity on public sector pay the economy will be vulnerable and the party will lose much of its remaining purpose.
Mrs. May instinctively agrees with her Chancellor and gave, this week, the sort of spirited defence of the Tory record on the economy that was so sorely lacking from her campaign. But in truth her hands are tied. As many as 50 backbenchers and junior ministers have conveyed to the (increasingly powerful) Chief Whip their demand that public sector pay be uncapped. She simply doesn’t have the numbers to refuse.
All of which points to the misery of May’s position. In power, but not in control. She is weak, subject to the whims and whimsies of Parliament. But she has a trump card to play. Her hidden strength comes from the success of Jeremy Corbyn.
Today’s YouGov poll puts the Labour Party 8 points ahead of the Government. It is probable, though by no means certain, that an election in the Autumn would return a Corbyn-led Government. This, most Conservative MPs cannot and will not countenance. It is one thing to give Labour a shot in normal circumstances. But between Brexit and Corbyn’s perceived extremism these are not ‘normal circumstances’. For many Tory MPs, May – for all her faults – is their last line of defence for Brexit and for liberal capitalism. The more popular Labour looks, the more risk inherent in deposing the Prime Minister.
All of this holds true, and keeps May in position, unless there is a route to replacing her that does not entail an early election. If someone could be found prepared to do the job of care-taker PM, to deliver Brexit but to solemnly swear to pass the torch as soon as the task is complete, then perhaps a succession could be arranged. That person would have to be older, trusted by Brexiteers but respected by Remainers and capable of reassuring the ranks that they were driven by patriotism rather than by ambition. For this reason, David Davis’ star continues to rise even as Boris’ wanes.
In Labour the unity that was forged in unexpected success is already beginning to crack. An emboldened hard-Left and Momentum are already talking up the prospect of deselection for moderate MPs and are steadily asserting themselves in seats like Luciana Berger’s in Liverpool. The ongoing feud at the heart of Labour – fuelled by influential figures such as new Party Chair Ian Lavery – will bubble on. Whilst the party remains on a war footing, ready for any fresh poll, it will not reach crescendo. But it is not going away, either. The majority of Labour MPs are looking forward to summer recess to recharge with a renewed sense of purpose.
And meanwhile the Lib Dems appear reluctant to learn any of the lessons of Mrs. May’s tragedy and seem set to install a new leader – Sir Vince – without a contested election. If Gordon Brown’s experience, or of course Theresa May’s, is anything to go by then Cable is in for a rough ride. Politics needs the catharsis of a proper battle for convincing leadership to be forged – they are making an error.
In these most uncertain of times none of our parties look match-fit to tackle with any clarity the existential issues we face. They say that electorates get the politicians they deserve; many ordinary voters will be wondering what on earth they have done to earn this governing class at such a moment of peril. Little wonder that many in the centre – in Labour and in the Conservative Party – are looking across the channel enviously at the imperious but purposeful presidency of Macron. The obstacles to their replicating his project of renewal are numerous and complex. But increasing numbers feel they simply have nothing left to lose.