Steve Richards: The May Supremacy is still far from inevitable
Comparisons with Margaret Thatcher should be put on hold - for now.
Theresa May is the most powerful Prime Minister in modern times. The lesson from the by elections in Copeland and Stoke is that she faces no significant political opponents. This is unprecedented.
Since the results of the by elections were declared there have been many comparisons on the BBC between May’s current position and Margaret Thatcher’s in the early 1980s. Like May managed to do in Copeland, the Conservatives gained a seat in a by-election as a governing party en route to Thatcher’s landslide win in 1983. But the comparison does not stack up. Thatcher always had cause to be fearful.
Some polls put the Conservatives in third place under her leadership during the SDP’s rise in the early 1980s. Neil Kinnock’s Labour party was often miles ahead in the polls in the 1980s and not only held by-elections but made several gains. Now Labour celebrates holding one seat and loses another to the Conservatives. Unlike Thatcher May has no cause to be fearful, at least for now.
As an important bonus for May UKIP is imploding. In recent months there has been a focus on the threat to Labour from UKIP but the rise of the party was such a problem for the Conservatives that David Cameron felt compelled to offer an EU referendum. There is no such threat from UKIP now. For its new leader, Paul Nuttall, to stand in a ‘leave’ seat with Labour in disarray over Brexit and lose in such a humiliating fashion is a near fatal calamity. Nuttall leaves Stoke as a deeply flawed and fragile leader when he desperately needed a sense of positive momentum. He is the party’s third leader since the referendum. One of the candidates in a previous contest ended up in hospital after a bust up with a fellow MEP. New parties struggle to survive such dark absurdities.
Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats remain a tiny parliamentary party even if they have a potent cause in opposing Brexit. As a result May is uniquely unchallenged and her party knows that if she were to call an early election it would win easily.
Her supremacy is far from inevitable. Step back from her and her party’s commanding position and reflect on what has happened. The Conservatives won a narrow victory in 2015. Their leader, David Cameron, was forced to resign as Prime Minister a year later after losing an historic referendum. The party staged a whacky leadership contest that lasted only a few days. May became Prime Minister even though she supported Remain.
She faces Brexit with a tiny overall majority, smaller than John Major’s in the 1990s. Some of her MPs are alarmed by the prospect of a hard Brexit while others resent the way they or their allies were sacked when she became Prime Minister.
May has been forced to form a close alliance with President Trump, hardly the most reliable ally. The NHS is in crisis and there is little evidence she has a plan to address it. The economy is fragile partly because of Brexit. May is solid and hard working, but she is also a shy slightly awkward public performer. Her total dominance of the political stage is not inevitable.
The weakness of the opposition is the main explanation for her and her party’s ascendency at a point when both might have been traumatised. Jeremy Corbyn is not a leader. He hopes to tap into Donald Trump’s anti establishment appeal, but Trump was a freakishly maverick individual standing as a candidate for the US Presidency. Corbyn is a leader of a dysfunctional and divided party.
One of the duties of leadership is to bind the factions together. Evidently he cannot do so. He is also still in the easy phase of leadership, the first half of a parliament where policies of an opposition party are not heavily scrutinised. In the next half, as the election moves into view, Corbyn must form a detailed policy programme that will be subjected to brutal levels of attention, while winning the support of all parts of his party for the policies and, let us not forget, the backing of the wider electorate.
If Corbyn does stand down before the election, still quite likely given his age and the even greater stress of doing the job when behind in the polls, Labour urgently needs an experienced figure to take over. There will be no attempts to remove him in the light of the Copeland defeat partly because strategically inept MPs played that card far too early last summer. But he might stand down of his own volition in the next year or so. If he does no successor should be elected on the basis that he or she performed well once on Question Time or Newsnight. The bar for leadership should be much higher than that.
For the main opposition party there should be much to play for in this parliament as the Brexit negotiations get underway. Fleetingly May commands more of the political stage than Thatcher did. In the wider context she is much more fragile. Thatcher did not face Brexit and ruled with big or landslide majorities. May won her by election in Copeland during her Prime Ministerial honeymoon and in the strange dream -like period between the referendum and the triggering of Article 50. The UK has not left the EU yet and no one knows what form departure will take.
It is about to get much tougher for May. The Brexit negotiations will be unbearably complex and draining. Whether electoral politics becomes more challenging is not in May’s hands. It is up to her main political opponents to get their act together. So far there is no sign of any of them doing so.