Steve Richards: The election was a triumph of will and conviction for Corbyn
As the PM limps on, the Labour leader has a new authority. But can it last?
The outcome of the 2017 election is the most dramatic and significant for decades. Theresa May is doomed even as she tries to hang on weakly. No Prime Minister in modern times who has needlessly thrown away a majority has remained in power for very long. In February 1974 Edward Heath desperately sought to stay in Number Ten after calling and losing an early election. He was gone on the Monday after the election, having inadvertently wiped out a comfortable Tory majority. May will last longer but will do so as a Prime Minister who lost a majority after a poor campaign.
Sooner or later she will become the fourth successive Conservative Prime Minister to fall over Europe. The issue of Europe propelled Thatcher, Major and Cameron to their doom. In May’s case, before her early Brexit election she had been omnipotent, enjoying a honeymoon that gave her the space to be ruthlessly dominant. Brexit was her excuse for calling the election and now she contemplates negotiating with the rest of the EU as a fatally wounded figure. The relationship between the Conservative party and Europe requires the work of psychiatrists as much as political journalists and historians. But note that while the EU keeps going Conservative leaders leave the political stage in torment. The relationship is not an equal one.
The chance for a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all is suddenly higher. May made the calamitous mistake of becoming the leader of the hard Brexiteers, appearing to ignore altogether the 48 per cent who voted Remain. She called the election partly to get a mandate for her view of Brexit and has not secured such an endorsement. Instead the composition of the newly elected Commons will coalesce more around a soft Brexit compared with the previous parliament where May was the commanding figure. Most specifically there is no majority for her harder version of brexit. The first sign of this changed dynamic will be seen when her new relationship with the Ulster Unionists takes shape. The Ulster Unionists never knowingly underestimate their power in a hung parliament and that will include flexing muscles in relation to the Brexit negotiations.
The former Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, was one of the architects of Article 50, as part of the Lisbon Treaty. He tells me that the Article was drawn up to make it almost inconceivable for an EU member to contemplate leaving. In particular the two year time limit for departure was regarded as impossibly tight. For the British government it becomes even tighter now. There will be epic parliamentary battles in the UK with a fragile minority government. With an uneasy symmetry the clock ticks on Brexit and on May’s leadership.
In contrast to May’s terrible few weeks Jeremy Corbyn emerges as one of the more successful leaders in Labour’s history. Consider the context in which Corbyn began this political battle. May was miles ahead in the polls. She called an election that caught everyone by surprise. Most Labour MPs chose not to co-operate with the national campaign. Some Labour candidates thought they were being clever in arguing that a vote for Labour was fine because Corbyn was useless and would lose badly.
In a triumph of will and conviction Corbyn kept going, daring to unveil a social democratic manifesto that would be commonplace in most of Europe but was portrayed in parts of the UK media as a programme to the left of Stalin. For two years his internal dissenters were treated liked titans as they mouthed banal cliches about the ‘centre ground’ and the need to be ‘modern’. In reality a lot of them only knew they loathed Corbyn. They had no thought through alternative programme. Their attempt to remove Corbyn last summer made him stronger. Strategy and political ideas have not been their strong point so far.
Corbyn’s strong performance means that the destructive ‘tax and spend’ debates that distorted previous elections are unlikely to apply in the future. This is healthy for democracy, economic policy and public services. The debates trapped timid Labour leaders into making commitments that either killed off campaigning verve or paralysed them in government. Corbyn has shown some voters are intelligent enough to rise above such arid reactionary debates that reduce all leaders to being misleading accountants. Whoever succeeds Corbyn at what will now be a more distant date needs to think deeply from today. The ideological emptiness of the Blairite mantra ‘what matters is what works’ in itself no longer works if it ever did.
But after the bliss of the campaign Corbyn returns to Westminster and his parliamentary party. This is the dimension of leadership he has not mastered, working with a team and challenging a government effectively in the Commons. Corbyn has a new authority. He could lose it as quickly unless he shows he can be a parliamentary leader as well as a captivating campaigner.
A second election this year is logical but unlikely. Assuming there is still a Conservative government in power after the summer I doubt if the Prime Minister-May or a successor- would take the risk after what has happened this week.
In the meantime UK politics moves slightly to the left. The election debates were not about the fantasy of wiping out the ‘deficit’ but how to spend on social care and public services. A Tory Chancellor will struggle to get majorities for deep spending cuts in the new Commons. Brexit might become less extreme. Presumably May will continue to develop her theme about the good that government can do, her distinctive and thoughtful message from the last twelve months. If she is too weak to do even that there is no point in her even trying to stay on as Prime Minister.
Picture by: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images.