Autumn of discontent

‘A general election this autumn is unlikely, but if it were to happen it would smash both Labour and the Conservatives’

Michael Mosbacher

Steve Baker claims that 80 Tory MPs are ready to vote against a Chequers-type deal, but even 20 would be enough to bring down the government (CHRIS MCANDREW CC BY 3.0)

The future course of UK politics — thanks to Brexit and the Corbynista takeover of Labour — is more uncertain this autumn than it has been at any point in a generation. The form Brexit will take is one question, but the very structure of our party system also hangs in the balance.

It is often said that the Conservatives have a tremendous survival instinct; they always pull back from the brink and rally around a leader, the argument goes, when they realise the alternative is the prospect of defeat and years in opposition. It is likewise stated that the Labour tribe are haunted by the spectre of 1981. Of the 28 Labour MPs who defected to the SDP only four were re-elected in 1983. They were joined on the new party’s bench by party leader Roy Jenkins, who had won the Glasgow Hillhead by-election the previous year (it would now be unthinkable for a non-Scottish politician to be elected for a Scottish constituency) and the 23-year-old Charles Kennedy. What is more, the 1981 split in progressive politics helped to keep the Left out of power for a further 16 years. These assumptions about the two main parties are generally true — but they might not be this autumn.

Parliament will be wholly consumed by Brexit. At the time of writing, the House of Commons has only four government bills before it — two of which, including the Rating (Property in Common Occupation) and Council Tax (Empty Dwelling) Bill, are uncontroversial and frankly trivial. At this stage in a normal parliamentary session the Commons would expect to be dealing with a dozen or more pieces of legislation. Other than the review of parliamentary boundaries, the Commons will be supping on a diet of pure Brexit.

After the Salzburg summit, seemingly presaging the death of Theresa May’s Che-quers plans, the Prime Minister must decide in which direction to tack. Her public utterances have been designed to reassure her own Eurosceptic MPs and the wider Tory membership that she is not ready to offer further compromises to the European Union. This strategy, however, is not working — the Brexiteers of the European Research Group of MPs are so distrustful of May post-Chequers that nearly all are convinced that this is a charade being played to help the Prime Minister through a potentially extremely difficult party conference. May’s Eurosceptic critics are, in private, extremely doubtful that she will embrace their favoured Canada-style free trade agreement as a basis for future relations with the EU.

Steve Baker, the de facto whip for the ERG MPs, claims that up to 80 of his Conservative parliamentary colleagues will vote against a Chequers or a son-of-Chequers type deal. Since Labour are also pledged to oppose it — and Labour’s ardent Europhiles would be united with its smaller band of five or six Brexiteer rebels in this opposition — such a deal would stand little chance of getting through the Commons. Baker’s 80 may well be an exaggeration of the numbers who would actually vote against the government on its deal, as defeat for the government could well presage its fall. The true figure is probably closer to 40, and if it came to a confidence vote, precipitated by the issue of our future relationship with the EU, fewer still would vote to bring the government down. But even 20 Tory MPs, when the government’s effective majority is 12 or 13, would be more than enough to collapse the government — and there are certainly 20-plus Conservative MPs for whom the terms of our leaving the EU are much, much more important than the survival of the current government.

All that Labour can unite on is opposition to a Chequers-type deal. The Labour leadership’s position makes perfect political sense for an opposition party: they would much rather have an early general election precipitated by the failure of the Commons to approve a Brexit deal than hold a second referendum on any deal. The expected outcome of a government failing to have a parliamentary majority for its central policy would be for that government to fall. Before the Coalition government’s Fixed Term Parliaments Act this would almost certainly have precipitated an early general election. Now things are more uncertain, but an early election would still be a strong possibility under those circumstances, and a possibility that one would assume any opposition party would seek to exploit.

Yet, instead of this being the preferred course of action most Labour MPs seem to prefer the idea of holding a second referendum, a so-called People’s Vote. There is no chance that May could survive as Prime Minister — after making her opposition to a second vote so clear — while changing her mind and agreeing to such a referendum, but such a vote is a theoretical alternative to an early election; you cannot do both.

So why are so many moderate Labour MPs such as Chuka Umunna and Stella Creasey so keen on a second referendum rather than an early election? There are three possibilities. They may believe it is more likely to be achieved. They would be wrong. It is conceivable that there would be a parliamentary majority for such a vote — if Labour, along with the other opposition parties who are already in the bag, could unite around it and the small band of Conservative Europhile rebels who already support it, including Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Justine Greening, continues to grow. What is not conceivable, if the Commons had voted for a second referendum, is that a Conservative government could implement it. The government would fall — and without a government in place the legislation would not be passed and we would be heading for an election anyway.

It is also possible that the Labour moderates do not trust that a Corbyn government, if elected in an early election, would stop Brexit or at least implement a softer Brexit more to their liking. These fears are legitimate. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has made clear he would not want the second referendum to offer the option of staying in the EU — for him this is very much the second-best option to a general election. He merely offers the option to accept or reject the deal that May negotiates, i.e. something completely different from what the People’s Voters want. The Corbyn cabal is all too aware that continued EU membership would make it extremely difficult to implement many of the policies closest to  Corbynista hearts, most notably renationalisation. It would also make it impossible to impose capital controls, something which would be absolutely vital for a left-wing Labour government if it sought to avoid an immediate economic crisis.

Third, it might be the case that Labour moderates do not want an early election for the simple reason that they do not want a Corbyn government to be elected. If the current parliament survives until 2022, for its full five-year term, the hope is that something may yet happen to prevent Corbyn leading the party into the next election — whether it be Corbyn falling foul of the Commons Standards Committee for failing to declare international trips to Palestinian and other “progressive” jamborees or simply getting too old to carry on or, rather less likely, the Labour membership coming to its senses.

One of the great achievements of the Brexiteers is how thoroughly they have managed to toxify the idea of a second referendum. Vote Leave and its strategists Dominic Cummings and Douglas Carswell actively considered running the Leave campaign with a two-referendum strategy — one on the principle of leaving and one on the final deal — when they thought that this would be a more likely route to victory. It was only abandoned as a plan in early 2016 because of pressure from donors who hated the idea of having to fight the battle twice and the growing notion that the Leave campaign might actually win.

If the referendum had gone the other way, it would have taken Nigel Farage days, rather than the months it took Remainers, to argue that the result had been a cheat and a second referendum was needed. Indeed, Farage was laying down the groundwork for just such a strategy with the tone of his “concession” speech, blaming Project Fear scaremongering, shortly after the polls closed, when he appeared to think that Remain had won. Of course, what the People’s Vote project — the name is a straight rip-off from the Eurosceptic-backed campaign to pressure Cameron into holding an In/Out Referendum, the People’s Pledge — is now trying to achieve is not truly a referendum on the deal but a way of overturning Brexit, or achieving an “Exit from Brexit” as its Liberal Democrat supporters honestly proclaim.  

It seems unlikely but not impossible that there will be an election this autumn, but if there is it will surely irrevocably smash the party system. Such an election would be precipitated by May failing to get her preferred Brexit deal through the Commons. For this to happen, some Conservative MPs would have to vote against the government in a confidence vote and the Tories would be standing on a pro-deal, whatever that deal may be, manifesto. Those Conservatives who opposed the deal would then have to stand on their own anti-deal manifesto. This may seem an unlikely scenario, but Europe could still finally bring about the split in the Conservative Party that it has been threatening to do since Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech 20 years ago.

The Labour party conference vote to make the deselection of MPs easier — not going as far as some of the Momentum hotheads would wish, but still proceeding in that direction — also makes a Labour split more likely. If MPs will be deselected anyway and the party cannot be recaptured, what is the case for more moderate MPs not leaving a party led by someone they believe would be a disastrous Prime Minister? The lessons of 1981 then become irrelevant as there is not the option of staying and fighting. Frank Field and John Woodcock will surely not be the last Labour MPs to leave their party this year or early next year.

In his new book, out this month, Start Again: How We Can Fix Our Broken Politics (4th Estate, £9.99), Times columnist and former Blair speechwriter Philip Collins make the case for a new centre party, the Common Wealth Party. Whether more MPs leave Labour is not the question: some certainly will. The question is whether a new significant centre party — or indeed a new social democratic, rather than Corbynista, Labour Party — will emerge.

One of the problems for new parties in the past has been funding, yet that will not be an issue this time. There are enough very wealthy men — and they are almost always men — who would be willing to fund both a “clean Brexit” party and a new centrist party. It is easy to visualise either such entity raising tens of millions to fight an election campaign.

Where new parties emerging now are at a distinct disadvantage, compared to the 1980s, is that by-elections, which provided the oxygen for the rise of the SDP in the 1980s, have become rarer, especially in Conservative-held seats: no Conservative MP has died in office since 2006 and by-elections in Tory-held seats for other reasons have also been rare.

It is more likely than not that our current party system will survive, with just a few Labour MPs peeling off and some Tories sitting as independents, depending on which way Brexit goes. Yet there is a possibility that this autumn will see the start of a re-alignment of British politics.

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