Sunday 25 November 2018

Is the Conservative Party about to Die?

Call me perverse, call me morbid. For years I've looked forward to attending a funeral. This isn't to mark the death of some hated acquaintance or public figure. No, the dream is the demise of an institution, the entirely welcome expiration of the Conservative Party. I want to be there when it is lowered into the ground, to make sure the earth is heaped upon its blasted coffin and check, check, and check again that this is final. A happy time to be sure, and something to anticipate with relish. But given recent events, could it be that Brexit has hastened the glorious day? Are the Tories on a brink of a collapse they might never recover from?

Well, this last week hasn't done much for the continued good health of the party. Theresa May's deal has had the nod from the EU27, and in a further boost to her position there is no appetite to reopen negotiations should May's deal fall in the Commons. Words she obviously wanted to hear, as the whips' office think such claims will help get it through. The problem is as the week has progressed, the number of Tory MPs indicating they will vote against has totted upwards every day. And no succour is coming from the Labour benches either. Lisa Nandy, one of the soft left MPs most prone to voting for whatever nonsense May returned with, ruled out doing so on Sophy Ridge this morning. Only the foolhardy or the suicidal would march through the aye lobby with May and her loyalists.

Theresa May's open letter "to the British people" has to be seen in this context. With MPs reluctant and sure to vote it down, she hopes an appeal over their heads is enough to mobilise a groundswell of pressure that will force the honourable members to think again. It did, after all, work with big business. This letter, however, is pitched more in a leave direction than the supposed plea for national unity it affects to be. We're promised "an end to the free movement of people once and for all" and a points system for immigration. The NHS is going to be (no, is) funded to the tune of an extra £394m a week. Control over "our waters" is on the cards, and rights of ex-pats are protected, and then we have some waffle about coming together as a people to tackle other big issues.

A triumph of political communication it is not, but it's sufficiently woolly and vacuous to get the likes of the Express and Mail on board. What May is banking on is less an argument but more Brexit fatigue. There are millions of people for whom the last few years was "too much politics", and they are fed up of having Brexit ramming the headlines and crowding out almost everything else. These tend to be the same folks as those who think leaving the EU is a simple business and can't fathom why negotiations have taken so long, nor why the UK is even bothering with them in the first place. After all, we were alright before we joined the Common Market and we'd no doubt be alright if we weren't in it. May is trying to appeal to this constituency by promising an end to Brexit by delivering it, though she neglects to mention the fine print: the putative trade deal is going to eat up government business and ensure Brexit weighs like a nightmare on popular consciousness for years to come.

Though we're dealing with hypotheticals here, because even with the weight of the "business community", the EU27, and attempts to appeal directly to the country May's deal isn't going to pass. We're entering into paralysis territory. Or not, if the Sunday Telegraph is to be believed. Just as we have seen a cabinet-within-the-cabinet of the Brexiteers - Mordaunt, Gove, Fox, Grayling, Leadsom - there is an anti-group, a diametrically opposed Gang of Five. Grouped behind the chancellor, they have a Plan B in the drawer which would see the UK assume a Norway-style relationship with the EU. i.e. Single market rule taker with specific opt-outs (in Norway's case, the Common Fisheries Policy). It is suggested that if May looks like she'd going down the road of a no deal Brexit, Hammond and friends will blow up the government by quitting en bloc.

This is where the death of the Tory party currently constituted comes into play. May has made the sorts of concessions on Northern Ireland and Gibraltar that would have the tabloid press screaming traitor if a Labour government had done it. And yet it has sent a ripple of consternation through the party ranks and, with any luck, among its support as well. When the deal falls, which it will, an attempt by the Brexiteers to make a second attempt spikier isn't going to work, but is sure to alienate the remainers. And if May goes along with Hammond's plan, which is by far the most sensible "solution" from the standpoint of the UK's economic stability, then the leavers are left feeling pig sick. Both eventualities point toward a damaging split and a wrecking of the Tory party as we know it presently. The route to avoiding catastrophic damage, ironically, goes through the very deal leave and remain Tories find appalling and unacceptable. At least that has the virtue of deferring their preferred Brexit destinations for another day.

History has taught us to be wary about betting against the Conservative Party. Its unparalleled record of electoral success, its uncanny ability to move just enough with the times, and the impressive record it has convincing millions of ordinary people that the party of the shrinking minority interest is best at looking out for them has to command grudging admiration. But every time it has faced a crisis, the roots of its revival are present. Presently, the Tories are toxic to approximately half the population and throughout the Brexit negotiations has worked to prise apart the ideological glue of its own voter coalition. Going full-on populist under a new leader is unlikely to exceed the numbers May won in 2017, and tacking left to capture the rising class of voters means abandoning the right and allowing the core to implode further. It's very difficult to see how the Tories can escape when the path back to stability is permanently closed. No deal brings chaos. May's deal brings chaos. No Brexit brings chaos. These last few weeks have accelerated the crisis in the party, and, happily, the destruction of the Tories cannot be ruled out.


David Walsh said...

But with respects Phi, your piece only takes us to the arrival of the tellers at the Speakers table and the voting down of the May deal. What then.? In the same way that thought of an impending execution sharpens the mind of a condemned prisoner, MP's THEN might adopt courses of action they have hitherto ruled out. Do we see entering dimly, the shadow of a 90 year old ghost - a "National Government" ?

In the same way that Ramsay Mac sacrificed his career, reputation and the future of his party ti implement the {fascinating co-incidence} the austerity demands of the May Committee, will Mrs M become a latter day McDonald, shattering her party into oblivion ? But remember, to achieve this, she;s need the help of a good chunk of our PLP and the Lib Dems and SNP - and all of would suffer collateral damage. nd given the present fragile state of our own party, the stance of JC and John McDonnell has to be part of this calculation. So we secure the softest of Brexits, but will it condemn us (never mind the Tories) to a long wilderness ?

Frightening times indeed.

Dipper said...

Again, this premature gloating ignores the obvious fact that Labour is equally split, so the death of the Tories would quite likely take Labour with it. There is hardly a single policy objective that John McDonnell and Keir Starmer share.

But the Tories ... well the party membership is overwhelmingly Eurosceptic. So the issue is how the pro-EU MPs reconcile themselves with the membership. My guess is that the numbers are going to slip away from May's deal quite quickly. It is going to get slaughtered in the Commons, as once it becomes clear this is going down no-one will want to be seen to be on the wrong side. Then parliament as a whole is going to have to make a decision. Either way, the wings in the Tory party will reconcile. I think the Tories will survive this, get a new leader, and win the next election.

Tmb said...

The Tories died years ago, spiritually, morally and ethically.

All led by a fake Christian, who says she is guided by her faith. I see nothing in their policies that reflect any kind of Christian values. Yes, I know the right wing here and in the States claim the religious high moral ground to offset their immoral stance and vile policies against disabled people, the poorest and people who are often incapable of looking after themselves. I know they are hypocrites, but this needs pointing out often.

Just for balance, the 'ahem' left wing have their own humanistic religion of PC, used more or less as fake Christianity is used by the Tories. Morality from people who have no morals is the big problem we are all up against.

Speedy said...

I think most Tory voters (if not members) are behind the deal. They just want it all over. No one wants no deal. The deal (or something like it) will pass and this will be forgotten. I think the PLP is more likely to implode before the Tories and I think Phil's Casandra-like predictions are verging on weird. Sorry. I look forward to being proved wrong!

Second time as farce said...

As Elvis Costello sings, Tramp the dirt down.

Unknown said...

Or - Parliament realise that the majority of the UK public are no longer in favour of Brexit, they ask the EU for enough extra time to run another referendum with single transferable vote, and it's three options: 1) No deal 2) May's deal 3) Cancel Brexit altogether.
Everyone gets out of jail free and we can forget Europe and focus on how badly the Tories are mucking up everything else.

Anonymous said...

I doubt it but we live in hope.

Anonymous said...

Speedy, if the PLP was going to "implode" the chances are it would have at least started to happen by now.

Instead, any "centrist" breakaway appears to be shelved indefinitely and it seems Labour MPs will vote almost en bloc against May's deal. Which isn't what the Westminster "experts" were predicting just a matter of days ago.