Could British politics realign?

‘The Macron example has made some former British leaders dream of new alignments’

Politics
George Osborne (pictured in 2016) still teases a return to politics (Richter Frank-Jurgen CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr)

Could British politics realign? Might the UK’s party system be shaken up? In France, Emmanuel Macron managed to sweep aside the existing major parties earlier this year. In the United States, while their two much looser parties are still the only game in town, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have engaged — with varying degrees of success — in hostile takeovers of the old behemoths.

In Austria, the victory of 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz in last month’s election may seem like the return to ascendancy of the Austrian People’s Party, one of the two parties dominant in Austria since the war. In fact, the young leader did his very best to downplay the Volkspartei. Kurz made a big thing about people who were not members of the party appearing high up on its electoral list and it appeared on the ballot in the parliamentary elections as Liste Kurz — Österreichische Volkspartei. Such branding may be familiar from start-up, challenger parties around the world — think Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in Australia or Lijst Pim Fortuyn in the Netherland — but is unheard of for major parties such as the Austrian People’s Party, which has been on the scene for more than 70 years or, if you include its predecessor the Christian Socialist Party, 130 years. Could Britain see a similar transformation of its electoral politics?

After Theresa May’s disastrous general election campaign — which did everything to personalise the campaign around her other than changing the party’s ballot paper designation to “Theresa May’s Conservatives” — there is no appetite here for the Austrian option, indeed quite the reverse. Some of Jeremy Corbyn’s more swivel-eyed personality cultists may dream of Labour running as “Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour”, but if anything were to cause the party to split this surely would.

Yet the Macron example has made various of our former leaders dream of the possibilities and opportunities of new political alignments. No politician ever publicly says that they will defect — until they do. The possible exception to this rule is John Baron, the Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay and acolyte of the isolationist historian John Charmley, who went on the BBC’s Newsnight in the aftermath of Douglas Carswell’s and Mark Reckless’s defection to UKIP in 2014 to say “never say never in politics” when asked if he might follow them. He didn’t. However much they may protest their continued loyalty to their respective parties in public, it is nevertheless very clear that both George Osborne from the Conservatives and Tony Blair from Labour have been dreaming about a political realignment and sharing their thoughts with their trusted confidantes.

Both Osborne and Blair have form on this. Nick Clegg and David Laws have both recorded that during the coalition government Osborne repeatedly raised the prospect of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats agreeing not to run against each other in the 2015 general election in key seats, on the understanding that they would remain in government together after the election. Such an arrangement, not unlike the Conservative-dominated National Governments of 1931-40, would surely have led to the eventual integration of at least part of the Lib Dems into the Conservatives. Paddy Ashdown’s and Alastair Cambell’s diaries make clear that Blair was scheming to bring the Lib Dems into government — even though he enjoyed substantial majorities — during his time as Prime Minister in the hope that the parties would eventually merge. If this meant that the Labour Left marched off to set up their own party, so much the better in Blair’s eyes. Both Osborne and Blair — however improbable this might seem to others — clearly do not believe that their own political careers have come to an end. Despite his new career in newspapers and business, Osborne still publicly plays with the idea of returning to the House of Commons.

This might at first appear an odd time for such thoughts. In the 2017 general election the combined Conservative and Labour share of the vote, at 82.4 per cent, was at its highest for 47 years. The two-party vote share went up by 15 percentage points between the 2015 and 2017 elections. With the decline of the Liberal Democrats, and the precipitous collapse of UKIP’s vote, the two main parties may at first appear to be regaining the pre-eminence they enjoyed from 1945 to 1970. There are, however, three clear scenarios in which a new, breakaway parliamentary party might emerge today. Unsurprisingly, the most significant vote of recent decades — the 2016 EU referendum — plays a crucial part in each scenario.

Perhaps the most heavily touted scenario is that being pushed — with various degrees of seriousness — by Osborne, in private, and by various of his associates and those briefed by them more publicly. The argument here goes that the Conservatives have abandoned the progressive centre and centre-right of politics by turning their backs on EU membership and adopting policies, namely support for a so-called “hard” Brexit and rejection of continued membership of the single market, that will be disastrous for business in general and the City in particular — and as a consequence the country as a whole. In Osborne’s imagination, the UK will become a nasty, inward-looking, economically sluggish backwater after Brexit. Project Fear was not just a campaign tactic in the referendum for these Remainers — they genuinely believe that the UK is heading for a cliff edge. If the Conservatives can no longer be relied on to manage Brexit and the economy sensibly, the thinking goes, might it not be time for a new party to emerge? Might such a party not be able to draw some of the best talent from both Conservative and Labour centrists?

There are various significant problems with this notion. A Project Fear-based party would have to overcome the fact that Project Fear has not worked in the UK, and shows no signs of starting to work. In the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, support for independence rarely hit 40 per cent before the end of May 2014. After three months of a relentlessly negative unionist campaign about the dire consequences of independence, in early September we had the only two polls which showed a pro-independence majority.

The unionist cause won out in the end, but only after a change in campaign tactics and with a much smaller margin than it should have done. Project Fear also failed in the EU referendum — and there is no reason to believe it would gain significant traction now, especially as many of the dire predictions postulated by Osborne during the campaign have not come to pass. Remainers can legitimately argue that we have not yet left the EU — and that the threatened horrors of doing so are just around the corner — but with every passing week this seems a less probable scenario.

Whilst an Osborneite party would certainly appeal to many in business and indeed in sections of the media (it would surely receive a very warm welcome at the Financial Times and the BBC), it is much less clear that outside west London and the City it would speak for many. In the 2017 general election the Liberal Democrats ran on a clear Remain platform — or at the very most the softest of soft Brexit platforms — and gained a few seats in west London and the prosperous parts of the south-east and a few seats in Scotland. But they received a lower share of the vote than their calamitous result in 2015 and were wiped out in the rest of the country. Why should a new party do any better?

The timing for such a project is also poor — no general election is scheduled until 2022. We are on course to leave the EU in March 2019 and it is planned that any transition phase will be over by March 2022 at the latest. What can a Remain party offer in a post-Brexit world? Surely there will then be little appetite for reopening such a debate.

From where would such a new party recruit its parliamentary supporters? While many Conservative MPs do have grave private misgivings about Brexit, the contingent of ultra-Remain MPs on the government benches is small. Beyond Kenneth Clarke, Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan the pool of potential defectors is small — perhaps another half-dozen or so — and in all such scenarios only a modest proportion of potential defectors actually do defect.

If you are a sitting MP for a fairly safe seat who is not at the end of their career, defection means risking — and on past experience it is a high risk — an annual salary of £75,000 and a generally pleasant life, plus gaining the ire of your former colleagues — for what? Perhaps only a brief moment in the media spotlight.

It is true that a different Conservative leader who was a truly committed Brexiteer might push more Tory MPs to consider their future. If Jacob Rees-Mogg did manage to pull off the improbable feat of moving straight from the backbenches to No 10, the talk of such a breakaway party would certainly become much louder.

Would sitting Labour MPs be attracted to such an endeavour? There are plenty — a substantial majority — who despise Corbyn and even more so his close coterie of shadow chancellor John McDonnell and advisers Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray. The latter two have only latterly switched their ideological ardour from admiring the Soviet Union, and indeed  making the case for Stalin, to promoting Corbyn. Yet for these MPs the case for not sacrificing their careers to a potentially futile project is even stronger than it is for their Conservative colleagues, as they generally have even less experience outside politics that they could fall back upon to make a living.

If Osborne were the public face of such a party — or even its key instigator — the prospect of Labour MPs joining seems remote. If any one person embodies the supposed austerity agenda of recent years it is Osborne — and if there is one thing that virtually all Labour MPs can agree upon it is opposition to austerity. What is more, Osborne has a record of being one of the most partisan of politicians. During the coalition government on matters such as party funding he repeatedly came up with “reform” schemes to create an unlevel playing field to dish Labour and primarily boost not only the Conservatives but also their Lib Dem partners. Moderate Labour MPs such as Chuka Umunna or Stella Creasy would find it very uncomfortable to be party colleagues of Osborne.

What about the second scenario, a breakaway party emerging organically from Labour? Labour has form on this, with the SDP breakaway of 1981 which briefly looked as if it might become a party of government: 28 Labour MPs — and one Conservative, Christopher Brocklebank-Fowle r— defected. But in the subsequent election of 1983 only six SDP MPs were returned. The experiment has done much to inoculate Labour MPs against talk of defection.

A moderate Labour breakaway was being touted much more widely before this year’s general election. After Owen Smith’s failed leadership challenge in 2016 many Labour MPs realised that Corbyn’s leadership was now secure — and that this would probably mean electoral disaster. Under that scenario, defection is a more enticing prospect: if your career is done for anyway, why not try your luck with a new party and enjoy being the centre of attention? The 2017 election turned out rather differently and talk of a new party has quietened down.

Many Labour MPs wish that Labour would take a more aggressively pro-European line, but Corbyn and McDonnell seem to have managed to keep a lid on this issue and found a position the majority of the parliamentary party can live with. Europe would also pose a problem for a breakaway party. Such a grouping would surely be aggressively Remain in its stance, but this would narrow the potential pool of defectors, as some of Corbyn’s most strident critics — Frank Field, Kate Hoey, John Mann, Caroline Flint — are staunch Leavers.

There is one thing that would reignite talk of a breakaway. If the Corbynistas overplay their hand and start deselecting more than a handful of moderate MPs, such a breakaway becomes extremely likely. The deselected MPs would have no future in Parliament with Labour, so might as well try their luck with a new vehicle. Such a party might not make a major breakthrough, but could take away enough votes to make a Labour victory impossible. Corbynista hubris could indeed lead to nemesis.

There is another scenario leading to a new party. If May, or more likely another Tory leader such as Philip Hammond or Amber Rudd, were to agree to a very watered-down version of Brexit, maintaining continued membership of the single market and free movement of  people, this would be wholly unacceptable to a substantial group of Conservatives. There are Tory MPs who could not live with it and they are certainly greater in number than the ardent Tory Remainers.

UKIP is a busted flush — the candidates who came second and fourth in its recent leadership election have both gone off to set up, separately, their own parties — and MPs would be extremely wary about having anything to do with it so long as Nigel Farage remains its eminence grise, with his unhappy history of working with others. Yet there can be little doubt that a soft Brexit would bring to life a new and significant Eurosceptic voice in British politics.