Election season is on
Divisions are multiplying in the cabinet - but it would be foolish to underestimate the strength of Theresa May’s position, argues Paul Demarty
It all seems to be getting a little tense in the corridors of Westminster.
The supreme court has finished its public hearing of the government’s appeal against the earlier high court decision that gave parliament the authority for the severing of Britain’s ties with the European Union. The opinion of your own correspondent’s learned friends is that the decision is likely to be upheld; The DailyTelegraph is already calling it a split decision - 7-4 to uphold - on the basis of “government sources”.1 One of the 11 judges is Jonathan Sumption - a Tory hack who would endorse the barrel-bombing of Chipping Norton if a Conservative prime minister ordered it; presumably he is telling the current holder of that office that he can only realistically get three others to sing from the government’s hymn sheet.
So far as the House of Commons goes, this is not a great problem for Theresa May. An expedited rush through parliamentary procedure might get an act passed authorising her to give notice of article 50 proceedings in March, as she plans to do, provided that she gets cooperation from the opposition benches. The latter, alas, looks all too likely, with a Labour leadership determined to genuflect before the referendum result as if it were the unambiguous instruction of God Himself, rather than a narrow victory for an ill-defined and fuzzy-bordered coalition of voters at a particular moment in time - enough of whom might be persuaded to change their minds to make a difference. (Frankly, as we shall see, the Labour leadership has rather more imposing demands on its persuasive abilities before it.)
Still, it is not a gimme - the Labour right has proven itself more than capable of rebellion these past years, is almost uniformly Europhile, and might - with the aid of 50-odd Scottish nationalists and a handful of Tory rebels - grind the government’s progress to a halt. Either which way, there is then the time-wasting capabilities of the House of Lords to get through: a bunch of tedious cronies and kleptocrats, the ermine set are horrified at the Brexit vote and - inasmuch as they take their political duties seriously at all - tend to view their role as moderating the fickle passions of the unwashed electorate in the interests of the British state.
Perhaps sensing a moment of opportunity, a chance to make an impression, numerous senior Tories have been on less than their best behaviour recently.
We will deal, briefly, with ‘Trousergate’, in which the PM was photographed in rather fetching leather slacks - a cool £995 a pop from Amanda Wakely. Persistent Cameroon ultra Nicky Morgan - formerly education secretary and a bitter opponent of May’s obsession with creating new grammar schools - started a rather ridiculous farrago by criticising May’s conspicuous indulgence (the Mail lost no time in pointing out that Morgan lugs around a £950 handbag everywhere - what a difference 45 quid makes in the Conservative Party!). This is widely interpreted as a proxy war - over Brexit, and education, and numerous other flashpoints that set the remains of Cameron-Osborne’s blue Blairism against the authoritarian populism projected, thus far, by May and her allies.
If only Morgan’s fashion advice were the worst of her worries. Boris Johnson found himself scolded by the government for stating in a speech that Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in proxy warfare in the Middle East - the Saudi monarchy’s interventionist foreign policy seems to be one of those things like Israel’s nuclear arsenal or the independence of Taiwan that, though obviously true to all but the most ignorant, can never be admitted by a responsible foreign secretary, due to all the delicate diplomacy that rests on us all pretending to believe otherwise. Johnson is sticking to his guns - presumably on the basis that the Saudis, given the terrifying possibility of a ‘Russian turn’ in US geopolitical orientation, need all the friends they can get, and with the aim of entrenching himself in frontline politics after his catastrophic failure to turn Brexit into a key to number 10.
Brexit itself continues to be a source of Tory divisions. Philip Hammond made it clear that he favours a longer transitional period out of EU membership (during which, one supposes, Britain becomes temporarily Norway, retaining the obligations and economic benefits, but surrendering political rights); the Financial Times alleges that Brexit minister David Davis has declared that he is “not really interested”2 in such a deal, and many Tories - especially at rank-and-file level - will no doubt concur with the judgment of Nigel Farage that all this is so much backsliding. Hammond was a remainer, and was already arguing at Tory conference that people had not voted to be impoverished.
Of course, that is the joy of referenda - people do not vote for anything much at all, on closer examination, and it is up to the authorities to ventriloquise the popular will. The capitalist establishment is replete with variations on what the Brexit vote authorises the British state to do - even among those who do not openly hold that the decision, such as it is, must be overthrown. Thus there are no end of opportunities for Tory strife.
Here, we must say a few words about what is not on the agenda. For the British left has a rather awful habit of overstating the gravity of splits in governments of the day: May’s merry crew are certainly no exception.
We remember Alex Callinicos telling the left ‘leave’ (Lexit) campaign’s founding meeting that Brexit would “shatter the Tories”; other such arguments were common. And many of Socialist Worker’s predictions indeed came true: it did not take a genius prognosticator to work out that David Cameron’s promise to stay on in the event of a ‘leave’ vote was a barefaced lie. In these days of very light attachment to party leaders, it was unimaginable that the incumbent Cameron-Osborne alliance would survive such a catastrophic humiliation.
The Tories, however, were never in danger of splitting, never mind ‘shattering’. They still are not. Left commentators seize on the present tensions as if there had not recently been five continuous years of coalition government, as if there had not been 13 years of Labour government marked by continuous sniping between the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown factions, as if Thatcher’s cabinet had not frequently suffered public and embarrassing splits - and one could go on and on. One of the great strengths of major class parties in this country is their ability to contain differences of opinion among their elites - a trick that has alas so far eluded the organisations of the far left. The most charitable interpretation of the SWP’s optimism about imminent Tory implosion is that it is merely extrapolating from the indubitable reality that equivalent political differences within the SWP would have the expected shattering effect.
Theresa May does have one significant source of weakness, however, which is the narrowness of her majority. (It has, of course, just gotten a little narrower, thanks to Zac Goldsmith’s hubris. No Londoner can have failed to enjoy watching this smug, morally contemptible little twerp get turfed out of the house, his baffling attempt at a principled stand backfiring spectacularly. Given the odious, racist character of his recent mayoral campaign, we wish him a good, long period of political oblivion.)
In his first term, Cameron was paradoxically strengthened by his coalition with the Liberal Democrats - there was a solid majority for getting ‘serious business’ through parliament, and a cast-iron excuse for ignoring the more swivel-eyed demands of his backbenchers. A slender majority, on the other hand, is a liability with such sensitive business before the state as Brexit - as Cameron has already discovered, to his cost.
Early election chatter has hardly let up since May consolidated her reign and picked her cabinet, and is reaching a deafening pitch in this interregnum between the decisions of the high court and supreme court. In truth, May merely needs the excuse, and perhaps Sumption’s colleagues will give it her on a plate early next year. It is no surprise that Labour did not win in the Richmond and Sleaford by-elections, but their results were bad even for the Tory heartlands; opinion polls point to a huge Tory majority if an early election is called.
May will find her chance eventually - and take it. Where will that leave a Labour leadership that has promised its followers a short-term electoral victory it cannot possibly deliver?