Steve Richards: Never before have the main party leaders been so weak
Party conferences are usually dominated by leaders. This year, both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn will be constrained by their parties and the challenge of Brexit.
Between now and the party conferences the two main leaders will command the political stage. When Theresa May makes a speech on Brexit later this month every word will be scrutinised for signs of her latest thinking on the most complex set of negotiations undertaken by any prime minister since 1945. When she gives her interviews during her party conference in Manchester she will generate waves of attention and at the end of her speech to the assembled gathering the cabinet will raise as one to salute the address.
Still fresh and revived from his triumph at the general election - and to wipe out the Conservatives’ majority at an election called suddenly and unexpectedly by a prime minister who was twenty five points ahead in the polls was a genuine triumph - Jeremy Corbyn’s words will be received by renewed adulation from his admirers and a new respect from critics who he proved to be wrong in many of their outdated assumptions. When Corbyn speaks on Brexit he will also make waves as a potential prime minister who might end up being in charge of the final negotiation.
Yet I cannot recall a phase in modern British politics where the will of the two main leaders is so weakened by circumstance or the greater wilfulness of their parties.
Theresa May is obviously weak after the election. For sure she appears more at ease now than she did in the immediate aftermath of the biggest electoral trauma to afflict a prime minister since Edward Heath lost an early election in 1974. Probably she genuinely feels more comfortable as well as appearing to be so.
Her deputy, Damian Green, is calm and loyal, a rare combination at the top of politics. The appointment of Robbie Gibb as her director of communications was a smart move. Gibb is one of those rare media figures who has worked closely with broadcast journalists at the BBC and also with many influential newspaper political editors who appeared on his programmes. I recall when I worked with the former BBC head of news and current affairs, Ian Hargreaves at the New Statesman he would tell the BBC exactly when our exclusives should be reported and in what form. His former employees obeyed as if he were still their boss, out of habit and genuine respect. I suspect the same will apply to some extent with Gibb. The May point of view has had a fairer or more upbeat hearing since his arrival.
But none of the new appointments can change the external circumstances. May is a prime minister who called an early election and lost an overall majority. She sought a mandate and did not get one. A hung parliament reduces any prime minister to a manager rather than a formidable change maker. May is an even more fragile manager because she lost a majority while facing the hurdles of Brexit. When she speaks in the coming months she does so not as a prime minister who has a view of the world that will prevail, but as one keeping her fingers crossed.
Politics is moving with unusual speed at the moment but it is worth reflecting for a moment that until the election May was proposing a range of policies that formed her distinctive pitch and a new approach for the government. From social care to intervening in failing markets the policies are now nowhere to be seen.
In relation to Brexit she has been unyielding so far but from this week it is the House of Commons that is in control and not her bewildered government. The so called ‘repeal’ bill being scrutinised in parliament for the first time will itself be repealed at certain key points against her will, merely the beginning of a stormy parliamentary journey over which she has limited control. More widely when May triggered Article 50 she gave away more power to the EU than any previous Prime Minister, the power to determine the nature of the UK’s departure. This is the essence of Article 50. Once triggered the power transfers to the remaining EU to manage the transaction. Even with a landslide majority May would have been in a weak position.
As a leader Corbyn is buoyant, on a high having confounded expectations in the election. Even so in key areas his party’s policies are far removed from his own personal convictions. Labour’s current stance on Brexit as outlined by Keir Starmer is almost the precise opposite of Corbyn’s own strongly held views as an individual. Labour’s latest approach is to remain full members of the single market and customs’ union for a transitional phase while seeking curbs on freedom of movement.
Personally, Corbyn is a passionate supporter of freedom of movement and has always been sceptical about the merits of the single market and customs union. In another vital policy area the newly triumphant leader is similarly subservient to the will of his party. Corbyn is a committed unilateralist, opposed to renewing trident. His party’s position is to support the renewal of trident.
Corbyn has proven to be more expedient than his caricature suggests, or has been forced into expediency. Although he is the first party leader since Margaret Thatcher to change the minds of some colleagues and commentators about the electoral consequences of espousing radical policies he is still constrained by party orthodoxies of which he is personally opposed.
Even with Corbyn moving his party leftwards on many fronts I am reminded of an interview with Neil Kinnock in 1988 when he was seeking to change his party’s policy on defence. Kinnock was asked: "As leader of your party what is now your personal view of unilateralism?". Kinnock replied "Being leader of the Labour party and having personal views is a contradiction in terms." Corbyn is a very different leader to Kinnock, but his personal convictions are not the same in some significant respects from his party’s.
Not so long ago party conferences were dominated by leaders asserting that they were not for turning and had no reverse gears. During this party conference season both May and Corbyn will be constrained by their parties, circumstance and the insanely mountainous challenge of Brexit. When asked their personal views on Brexit they could both argue that they are largely irrelevant. From their very different perspectives they wait on events, rather than shape them as they would wish.
Steve Richards’ TV series ‘Reflections On Leadership-Wilson to Cameron’ is available on BBC iplayer.