Summer is here and, for Theresa May, it couldn’t have come soon enough. The Prime Minister needs a holiday (three weeks walking in the Alps, since you ask) and so does her party. This has been a traumatic year – full of disappointments and unexpected difficulties – for Tory MPs. Twelve months ago they welcomed a new Prime Minister into office in their traditionally boisterous manner; tables were banged, cheers resounded, relief was sighed. By common consent Theresa May was the strong, stable salvation that the party needed after a referendum campaign that had soured life-long friendships and a leadership election that had descended into sub-Shakespearean tragic farce. Theresa May was a grown-up. Theresa May didn’t ‘play games’. Theresa May would approach the real and terrifying challenges of Brexit with sobriety and seriousness. Spirits were high and so, too, was public approval. As summer dawned in 2016 the future looked both bright and blue.
The peril in which the Conservative Party now finds itself is the child of many fathers. Eight years of austerity and ‘restraint’ – coupled with the immediate effects of the Brexit vote – shook public confidence in modern Toryism. A creeping sense that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ might not be quite sufficient as a negotiating strategy with our friends across the channel began to creep in. Sheer weariness of a Conservative Party that has consistently promised social change but delivered little that could be felt or perceived started to bubble away. Still, she called an election. Why? Well in part for all the reasons listed above; riding high in the polls, the Prime Minister could also smell blood in the water beneath her. Better to go now and win big, giving the party time to resolve those medium-term weaknesses that would one day surely come back to bite. It was a gamble and it did not pay off, but the reasoning for it was neither daft nor as deluded as many now claim.
Still, she did not win big or really even at all. And so she enters the summer weakened, wounded and with her future in open debate. The differences within the Parliamentary Conservative Party over the timing and manner of Mrs May’s eventual decapitation are more generational than they are ideological. Big beasts of the Cabinet – Davis, Johnson and even (remarkably) Andrea Leadsom – feel that the Prime Minister should go sooner rather than later. In part this is because it is they who stand the best chance of replacing her should she exit, say, at party conference in the Autumn. The younger section of the party want her to stay on long enough to at least finish the job on Brexit – a passionate belief shaped, a little, by this cohort’s desire that it be one of them rather than one of the old guard who leads next. They know they need a little more time to establish themselves and gain sufficient credibility and they are keen that it be the current crop who suffer for Brexit’s consequences rather than their own peers and colleagues. The sudden outbreak of sensibleness in Cabinet over a transitional deal (now assented to by almost all the top Brexiteers) may throw a spanner in that particular timeline’s internal logic.
By contrast – both to the Conservative Party and to twelve months ago – Labour’s tails are up. The war for the party’s soul is not over forever but Labour is for now, at least, a demilitarized zone. Whilst Tory MPs will spend the summer worrying about when and how to depose their leader – and fielding unwelcome comments and advice from constituency members on the matter – Labour backbenchers will enjoy a well earned rest.
On Brexit, Labour’s position is more settled than its critics allow. The party has adopted a clear and profitable approach – one of opposition. Not only does this mean that Corbyn can keep his coalition together for now through practiced ambiguity but this is the right, proper and appropriate place for the Labour Party to be in at this time. They are not the Government (despite what Corbyn’s cheerleaders on Twitter might say) and they are not obliged to develop a fully implementable alternate strategy. Their job is to probe, to question and to oppose; at the moment, on Brexit, they are doing this well.
Yes, there may be skirmishes to be fought over internal process when conference comes but Jeremy Corbyn is in no danger and even some of his fiercest critics now talk (albeit often grudgingly) of his virtues and his abilities as a campaigner and as a figurehead. Of course there remains work to be done – a broader coalition is needed, insurgency must be maintained, a smattering of die-hard Blairites continue to bleat – but the general feeling on the Left is that such matters can wait. The holidays beckon.
The Liberal Democrats enter the summer with an identity crisis and a leader no-one has voted for. Vince Cable was at one point amongst this country’s most popular active politicians, but a lot has happened since then. Can Cable create for his party an offer that cuts through the middle between Labour and the Conservatives? With both parties hovering in their less moderate comfort zones, this should be straightforward. But alas the stakes at present are so high that for many voters choosing any party bar the main two feels like an indulgence. Cable will struggle to make his voice heard.
Exhaustion is a real and present danger to good judgement. There is a reason our motorways are lined with signs that read ‘Tiredness Kills, Take a Break’. This has been a deeply upsetting and unsettling year for many frontline politicians but – more than anything – it has been a knackering one. This country now needs, perhaps more than ever, calm, good and sober judgement; let us hope that a month or so off equips our leaders to exercise it.