Steve Richards: What fresh crises will 2017 bring for Labour and the Tories?
Theresa May will soon find out that Europe has not finished with the Conservative party quite yet.
To predict what will happen in 2017 let us take what has happened in 2016 as our guide.
The year draws to a close with the two main UK parties in trouble. They are in trouble for very different reasons. The Conservatives have lost a Prime Minister for the same reason they always lose Prime Ministers in modern times. Like Margaret Thatcher and John Major before him David Cameron fell over Europe. Now his successor struggles to make sense of the same thorny policy area. Theresa May is in the odd position of being way ahead in the polls and facing the toughest legacy of any Prime Minister since 1945.
The Labour party must envy her and her party. At least the she is in power. Only this week the Labour MP, Jamie Reed, announced he was leaving politics at the start of the year, triggering a nerve shredding by election. Most MPs only leave politics when their party is in a seemingly insoluble crisis. Their departures, like defections, are a more reliable barometer of the political mood than opinion polls. Labour staged its second leadership contest in a year this summer and elected the same leader. Its position on Brexit is not clear but then clarity is a form of danger for a party that is divided. More fundamentally as it contemplates 2017 Labour lacks big figures that understand the rhythms of politics and with a distinct sense of where they want to take a party of the left.
These are the clues that make forecasting a little easier than usual. In spite of her popularity May will not call a general election. Indeed she will not call an election partly because of her popularity. There is no need to do so. While she commands leads in the opinion polls her party will follow her, at least for now. In addition she will have no cause to call an early election. Parliament will back the triggering of Article 50 with majorities that previous Conservative Prime Ministers would have died for as they struggled to pass contentious legislation connected with Europe. An election does not solve any problem that she faces. A big majority of Brexiteer crusaders would be harder to manage than the current one. Unlike most recent Prime Ministers May tends to say what she means. She has said there will not be an election until 2020. Barring the famous unforeseen circumstances there will not be one in 2017.
But the long haul does not mean a primrose path for May. The hardline Brexiteers will continue to stir in 2017, neurotically paranoid at any move that might suggest their dream will not be realised. The hysteria over the high court ruling, that Parliament should have a vote on Article 50, was a sign of the foaming anger to come. The ruling will prove to be a very big boost to the Brexiteers as confused, bewildered Remain MPs vote for Article 50, binding them in for the journey towards the cliff’s edge.
The dynamic of the post referendum debate in 2017 will change unrecognisably. For the latter part of 2016 the stage has been free for anyone to declare what he or she would like to happen in the negotiation. Indeed the government’s position is to have its cake and eat it, perfectly sensible at this stage. By the end of 2017 there will be little cake and not much to eat. Conservative MPs on both sides of the divide will be much more worked up than they are at the end of this historic year. History still has some way to go. Europe has not finished with the Conservative party yet in the same the Conservative party has far from finished with Europe.
The Labour leadership will huff and puff about Brexit, but its pitch has limited sustainability: ‘Because we are divided we are best placed to unite a divided country.’ Again the end of 2016 hints at what will happen next with Reed’s resignation. By elections will acquire considerable significance, as much as they did in the late 1980s and 1980s when leaders’ futures were at stake as voters delivered their verdict in a single constituency. If Labour were to lose Copeland, Reed’s constituency, the rocky leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, will become rockier still. Corbyn is a curious public figure. During his party’s now regular leadership contests he is prominent to the point o ubiquity and then he disappears from national view. This is odd as he is a good interviewee on the national media.
Apparently Corbyn plans to be more prominent in 2017. His problem is that his party is divided, albeit imprecisely and vaguely at times, and it needs a leader with the expedient skills of a Harold Wilson type figure to keep it together. In the 1960s and 70s Wilson led a deeply divided party and won elections. But Corbyn is on one side of the divide and cannot play such a role. He will be under more pressure in 2017, but will not face a third leadership challenge this summer. There are boundaries to the silliness of the dissenters, the ones who strengthened Corbyn’s position as they sought to remove him.
Dissenters in both major parties will stir but without a clear objective. This means that the most significant stirring in 2017 will come from Nicola Sturgeon as she has the clearest objective possible. She knows there will be no better chance to hold a second referendum on independence than in the context of Brexit and the collapse of the Scottish Labour party. She will not seek to hold a referendum in 2017, but watch her try to manipulate the arguments over Brexit in an attempt to push public opinion in Scotland towards her support for independence. If polls show her to be succeeding she will go for it. She will try to smooth the path during 2017.
The drama will also move to Europe, the elections in France, Holland and Germany partly determine what happens in relation to Brexit. May cannot control what happens when others go to the polls. More widely 2017 will make clear she is not fully in control of Brexit and cannot be. The EU will determine what form Brexit takes. Her last unilateral move will be to trigger Article 50 by the end of March.
2017 will end as it begins with the unusual situation of both main UK parties facing crises without easy or obvious resolution.
Picture by: Olivier Matthys/AP/Press Association Images