David Herdson: Tories should not try to be too canny with Copeland
Politics is not like a game of chess - and Conservative strategists would be wrong to treat the contest for Jamie Reed's seat as such.
Cockroaches, if the myth is to be believed, would thrive within the Sellafield nuclear complex were they ever allowed in. Labour’s leadership might be forgiven were they to describe Jamie Reed – who will be allowed in and who will thrive there – in like terms. In truth though, it was Corbyn himself who showed the cockroach’s capacity for survival against apparently impossible odds during 2016. Predictions of his impending demise during 2017 therefore need to be set against that proven resilience.
All the same, the unexpected and unwanted Christmas present of the Copeland by-election that Reed dropped into his leader’s lap presents an electoral challenge of greater significance than any he’s yet faced.
Copeland is of course far smaller than the London mayoralty that Labour won last year but in presentational terms, perhaps even more important for his future.Unlike mayoral elections, parliamentary by-elections are usually about parties, not individuals. Unless there’s a high-profile independent (as there was in Copeland’s own mayoral contest), the votes cast will be a direct reflection of the public’s opinion on the various parties and their leaders.
Furthermore, Labour was seeking to gain London back from the Tories; a defeat would have been embarrassing but arguably no worse than 2012 when Labour lost despite being around 10% ahead in the polls. By contrast, no governing party has gained a seat at a by-election since 1982 but the increased Con lead in the polls since July and UKIP’s internal troubles mean that the prospect has to be taken seriously.
If it comes about then the Labour MPs who failed to remove their leader last year might well feel that it’s worth another go – assuming that they can find the right candidate to lead it this time. With Momentum now suffering from internal division and with another year’s evidence to go on, they might decide that striking sooner rather than later is the better option.
But all of this is to get ahead of ourselves. The election hasn’t begun to be fought yet, never mind lost. For that matter, it might never be fought. With Reed not resigning until the end of January, there’s a good chance that the by-election will be scheduled to coincide with the May local elections (which ought to help Labour, as it’d dilute the effort that the other parties could put in). However, one under-noticed aspect of Theresa May’s end-of-March deadline for triggering Article 50 is that should the courts or parliament cause her to be likely to miss that target, she could easily demand that the Commons trigger an early election – and a parliamentary vote in late March would fit perfectly with a general election on May 4.
Although such a Commons vote would need two-thirds of MPs to support it, Jeremy Corbyn obligingly confirmed that he would instruct his MPs to do just that should the opportunity arise. That might seem like turkeys voting for Christmas but in fact most Labour MPs could still expect to hold on to their seats, particularly given that the new boundaries wouldn’t have yet taken effect. A snap election would also cut short any local deselection proceedings. If a vote comes, it will almost certainly pass.
However, more likely is that Theresa May will trigger Article 50 as she means to, that there’ll be no early general election and that the Copeland by-election will go ahead as expected. If so, some Tory game-players might want to soft-pedal it in order to maximise the chances of keeping Corbyn in place. For evidence, they might point to Eastleigh in the last parliament, when the Lib Dem hold steadied nerves in that party and contributed to the coalition going the distance – only for the Conservatives to then take the seat in 2015.
They’d be wrong to think like that. Helping to rid Labour of Corbyn would not only be doing his party a favour, indirectly it would benefit their own too. Weak oppositions make for weak, complacent and divided governments, willing to engage in internal politics and unwilling to put in the hard thinking because they’re not sufficiently scared of the consequences of not doing so. Brexit offers more than enough opportunities to indulge in those behaviours.
In any case, even if Labour is prompted into changing Leader, the Conservatives don’t really have reason to be scared of any of the alternatives on Labour’s front bench. Given Labour’s current membership, any Corbyn successor this parliament will also be firmly of the left and unlikely to prove all that electorally appealing to middle England. It betrays a lack of confidence in their own party’s ability in office to think about game-playing like that. Apart from anything else, the prize in Copeland – another MP – is well worth having to bolster the Conservatives’ slim majority.
Such thinking is also too clinical. Politics is messy. Unlike countless metaphors, it’s not like a game of chess – or if it is, it’s a game where the pieces have to be cajoled, where they can move themselves, where they’re prone to attacking their own side and where knights aspire to become queens. In such circumstances, thinking five moves ahead is pointless. Who is to say Corbyn won’t be replaced later in 2017 anyway? Or if not then, then later in the parliament? An extra MP might be handy; the self-discipline that an effective opposition brings certainly would be.
Rather than soft-pedal, the Conservatives should go for the win as hard as they can. If that results in Corbyn being dumped by Labour, so be it. His going would benefit Labour and Conservatives alike.