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The Economist  - 17 June 2017



 

Chaos-on-Thames

The Election aftermath. British politics staggers from crisis to crisis

An election designed to build “strong and stable government” has not gone entirely to plan

 


'MEMBERS of Parliament returned to the Palace of Westminster on June 13th with politics in a state of disarray. Having called an unnecessary election in order to increase her majority and boost her personal clout, Theresa May succeeded in doing the opposite. The Tories are eight MPs short of a majority. Mrs May’s authority is shattered. The great issue at the heart of British politics, withdrawal from the European Union, is once more in flux.

As the scale of the debacle became clear on election night, Mrs May’s future was uncertain. George Osborne, a former Tory chancellor, gleefully called her a “dead woman walking”. Mrs May reportedly drafted a resignation speech. Potential successors began to manoeuvre.

Mrs May will never lead the Conservative Party into another general election, but her immediate decapitation now looks unlikely. She displayed the right mixture of contrition and strength before the 1922 Committee, a group of backbench Tory MPs, on June 10th, saying that “I’m the person who got us into this mess and I’m the one who will get us out of it.” Sir Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson and one of the Commons’ most accomplished tweeters, turned one of his grandfather’s favourite sayings, “Keep buggering on,” into a hashtag: #KBOworktodo.

Other defeated party leaders have not been so lucky. Paul Nuttall, the UK Independence Party’s third standard-bearer in less than a year, resigned the day after the election. Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, quit within the week.

Mrs May survives only on sufferance. Before the election she was an autocratic prime minister. She governed through her co-chiefs of staff, Nicholas Timothy and Fiona Hill, and frequently rode roughshod over the civil service. Now her power has drained away. Her co-chiefs have resigned. She has appointed a liberal Tory, Damian Green, as her deputy prime minister. Philip Hammond, who looked as if he was for the chop before the election, remains as chancellor, his position secure. This marks a return to cabinet government, and to government by Sir Humphrey: turmoil in politics means that the civil service is more powerful than it has been for years. Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, will be an important source of stability.


A lease with all too short a date

Mrs May owes her survival to fear. First, fear of a Tory civil war. The most prominent candidates to replace her—Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, and David Davis, the Brexit secretary—are divisive. Their respective critics regard Mr Johnson as an unprincipled bumbler and Mr Davis as a popinjay—“The only man who can swagger while he’s sitting down,” as one puts it. They are both Brexiteers who would be unacceptable to the party’s Europhiles.

Second, fear of a fresh election. Post-election polls put Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party six or more points ahead of the Tories. So Mrs May clings on in Downing Street, weak and unstable, balancing faction against faction, protected not by any enthusiasm for her or her programme but by fear of Red Jeremy.

Mrs May spent much of the week working on a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP’s ten MPs would provide Mrs May with the votes that she needs to form a majority. It has strong historical links with what Mrs May has taken to calling her Conservative and Unionist Party. But it is not an easy partnership. The DUP’s opposition to gay marriage and abortion threatens to retoxify the Tory brand. It is also unclear whether Mrs May can form an alliance with the DUP without breaking the terms of the Good Friday Agreement (see article).

Mrs May’s problems with her coalition are complicated further by the Conservatives’ success in Scotland. Mrs May was kept within striking distance of a majority only by the fact that the Tories won 12 new seats in Scotland under the leadership of Ruth Davidson, a charismatic liberal Tory who is due to marry a same-sex partner. Though Ms Davidson has no seat in Westminster, she is making her influence felt, criticising the DUP’s social attitudes and making it clear that Scotland wants as soft a Brexit as possible.

The chaos means that the Queen’s Speech, in which the incoming government outlines its plans, will take place two days late, on June 21st. Mrs May will slim down and soften her programme, which was once supposed to solidify a new type of Conservatism that focused on the problems of the “just about managing”. The Conservatives have dropped their plans to reintroduce grammar schools and get equity-rich older people to contribute more to the cost of being looked after at home. They have also signalled “an end to austerity”, scrapping proposed cuts to schools’ budgets and scrambling to find billions more for social care without raiding pensioners’ benefits. The party’s plan to balance the budget, which had already been postponed until the mid-2020s, has been put off still further.

The chances of good government are reduced by the Tories’ civil war over Brexit. The schism deepens the party’s problem with talent by making it harder to sack weak performers without raising suspicions of ideological purges. Mrs May has kept several ministers who are singularly lacking in flair. The Brexit department has lost two experienced ministers just as negotiations are due to begin.

It looks as if Mrs May will keep buggering on for a while. But that is hard when the issue of Brexit splits her party and provokes almost primitive passions in some Europhiles and Europhobes. Britain is probably heading for another election before the end of the year and certainly before the end of this parliament. That would necessitate a contest for a new leader - and with it a bloody battle over Brexit. The biggest winner from Britain’s turmoil is Mr Corbyn, who was elected Labour’s leader almost by accident and who, until just before the election, was holding on to his position by a thread.'