The Tories’ Implosion Jeopardizes Brexit

Protestor wearing a Theresa May mask poses outside Downing Street (Reuters: Neil Hall)
They tried to convert populist energy into another consultant-driven victory.

Theresa May’s decision to hold a snap election has exploded in her face. Instead of leading the Tories to a doubling or tripling of their lead over their rivals, she and her team have brought about the end of a Tory majority that David Cameron surprisingly won in 2015. The election began less than two months ago with hopes of a 100-seat majority or more for the Tories, a landslide that would have put May on par with or ahead of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in the history books. The Tory hope was to strengthen her hand and give her the kind of electoral result that was enjoyed by Emmanuel Macron in France and will be had by Angela Merkel in Germany later this year.

Even as late as yesterday afternoon, insider sources were saying that the Tories had righted things and would get 60 or 80 seats. After all, Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to campaign defensively in Labour heartlands, hadn’t he? Yes, they assured themselves, May would be able to bury her intra-party rivals such as Phillip Hammond and ensure that a Brexit deal sailed through Parliament even if that deal angered hardcore Leavers or Remainers. Or both.

The result is an unmitigated disaster for the Tories. It may also be a disaster for Brexit. May’s success and her spring polling lead resulted from the energetic way she ran in front of the “Leave” result of last year’s referendum. She seemed to find a creative way of synthesizing the populist energy of Brexit voters into her party’s historic rhetoric of “One Nation Toryism.” For people such as your correspondent here, who had been waiting for a politician with the moxie to do this, it was an intoxicating political brew. I can tell you the hangover is epic.

Lynton Crosby (the Australian Karl Rove) and Jim Messina (a co-architect of Obama’s victories) gave May the most hubristic campaign strategy ever devised. They took her popularity and Jeremy Corbyn’s unfitness for granted. And they apparently decided that they needed to scare overly complacent Tory voters to the polls. Their strategy for doing this was to have May stumble and make the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn victory real for voters. Almost exactly on cue, the conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph, Times of London, and London Spectator were all dumping on May and talking about the strange integrity of Jeremy Corbyn. Effectively, the Crosby-Messina strategy amounted to: 1) We’ll give Jeremy Corbyn free momentum. 2) We’ll demoralize Tory voters. 3) We win. 4) Profit.  

The plan worked — up to the winning part. But I’m sure the checks cleared. Even before the night was out, rumors that Lynton Crosby was now going to help Boris Johnson replace May were circulating. Honestly, if there was a zany conspiracy in which angry Tory Remainers such as David Cameron and George Osborne secretly paid Crosby to sabotage May and Brexit, what would be different?

Not only this, but they essentially weakened their own prime minister and then Britain, banking on their ability to control the news cycle. This made her vulnerable to exogenous events and they came. Britain was hit with two shocking terrorist attacks during this campaign, while the press was following the dramatic script of calling May weak and wobbly. Jeremy Corbyn, no fool, savaged May’s policies of austerity for cuts to the police. Bang. Pow. The political games of Tory advisers led directly to May’s inability to play stateswoman when her country needed one. This is political malpractice on a profound scale.

This election reveals and changes much about British politics. In no particular order:

The Tory Party is almost certainly going to be plunged into internecine warfare. May had hoped to strengthen her hand against Brussels, in the Parliament, and against her internal Tory rivals. She is weakened everywhere. And worse, she intentionally sidelined potential foes such as Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond from the campaign she was running. She tried to do it without them and prove that she didn’t need their help. It was a bad political error. BoJo is a more clever attack dog and media hound than any foreign consultant that the Tory party can hire. And now his hands are clean of May’s disgraceful showing.

The major third parties are dying. May captured the same percentage of the vote that powered Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to their landslides, roughly 44 percent. But Thatcher and Blair were operating in three- or even four-party environments. England is reverting to a two-party system. The Liberal Democrats pitched themselves as the one party that still stood against Brexit and for a second referendum. They had their worst result in years, even losing perhaps the best spokesman for Remain, Nick Clegg. And it looks like the third parties collapsed into the Labour party. UKIP did not convert its ex-Labourites into potential Tories. It was a holding station for anti-EU sentiment from the remains of the anti-Tory working class.

But regionalism mattered. The shocking thing is that it was the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party that saved the United Kingdom from Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn. Under the intelligent and spirited leadership of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories became the main unionist alternative to the overconfident Scottish nationalists. The difficult results for the SNP mean a second independence referendum is off for now.

Oh yeah, Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom. Consciousness of Northern Ireland and its politics has basically disappeared from English life, and most English people like it that way. Regional elections for the parliament in Ulster get less coverage from the London press than do developments in the Idlib province of Syria. Well, Northern Ireland is back with cap in hand, just in time for the British to negotiate a deal with Europe that may put a border in Ireland. Seriously, the DUP may be the main political force behind a seriously jagged land border through Ireland.

The political games of Tory advisers led directly to May’s inability to play stateswoman when her country needed one.

Oh no! Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom! The left-wing British press is already trying to exact a price for the coalition the Tories must make with Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party, the conservative party that was led by Presbyterian firebrand Ian Paisley for decades. Owen Jones has memorably referred to it as the political wing of the 18th century. Most Tories in England have already reconciled themselves to abortion rights and gay marriage. And they flatter themselves for going along with the tide. The DUP flatters itself for swimming against the tide on these and many other issues. The English react to Ulster’s throwback form of British patriotism as if someone just walked into their tony club smelling like cowpies and cordite. You can bet that the DUP will do what all Northern Irish pols do when they have Westminster over a barrel: demand a great deal of money for social services. Tories are hoping to make this coalition with the DUP work until the enthusiasm for Corbyn wears off. The result is going to be a source of pained embarrassment for Tories, and the further indulgence and political infantilization of Northern Ireland, growing fat on all the undeserved treats.

At least this one time, Jeremy Corbyn was able to unite and energize the center-left and far left. Corbyn knows what he believes, understands the arguments for his beliefs, and has had three decades practicing those arguments. That gave him a serious advantage over the unexposed May, who was a convert to the Brexit cause.

Fiscally sound is synonymous with politically ruinous. Changing entitlements for the old is politically fatal in aging societies. Especially doing so unequally. The Tories performed very weakly in the parts of the country that are well-off enough to have a higher rater of homeownership. Why? The so-called “dementia tax.” May’s manifesto said it would drop the 72,000-pound cap on “social care” that the Conservatives had previously planned to impose. In other words, if you are elderly and require the assistance of a home nurse, the government will provide one for you — but there’s a catch. If you have more than 100,000 pounds of assets, the government will liquidate your estate after you die to pay for your care, leaving only the first 100,000 pounds to your family.

May had hoped to get credit for being responsible and using her political popularity (ha!) to do the tough things. And one of the tough things was re-calibrating Britain’s redistributive state so that it didn’t tilt so much toward the elderly and against those who are young and just starting out. But doing it this way was terrible. The dementia tax effectively made old age a lottery for the elderly and their families. If you get cancer, the NHS will just pay for your care. If you suffer from dementia and need help, the government will take your house after your death. Also, the prospect of the state’s seizing the family home trespassed the deep moral aspirations of middle-class Tory voters. Passing on one’s estate is the common man’s claim to be a little Lord himself.

When word of this policy got out, it was like the entire song of British politics had been interrupted by a record scratch. And the only person applauding May for her courage was Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator.

Brexit is in serious jeopardy. One talking point going into the last month was that Jeremy Corbyn and Labour had been wise to simply accept Brexit as a political reality. That’s true. In fact, by doing so they took Brexit off the table in the election. This allowed UKIP members to come back to Labour. But almost immediately you could feel the anti-Brexit establishment in both parties and the media finding a new argument. It goes like this: Even though both major parties accept and support Brexit and the anti-Brexit party was utterly wiped out, look, Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise result was powered by young people who were angry about Brexit!

The turmoil that is about to consume the Tories as they go into negotiations makes it more likely that they will bungle them and give Remainers more leverage to halt Brexit.

The momentum in politics isn’t just with populism, it’s with regime change. The establishment political and media class is creating monsters that threaten to devour it. The establishment says you can’t vote to break up the 300-year union of Scotland and England. Well they almost did. And you can’t vote for Brexit. Well that just happened. You can’t possibly vote for Donald Trump. Oh yeah? The Republicans and the Socialists will dominate France forever. Well, maybe this time neither will make it to the second round. You can’t possibly support this tweedy English Marxist. Well, they’ll show you.

The West is fundamentally bored and hopeless about the future. People want to do what they are told they cannot do. That means Trump, Brexit, Corbyn . . . anything that looks like a real choice, and the only real choices are the ones that earn the sniffing disapproval of the establishment.

May reached her dizzying political heights by being a serious representative of that demand for regime change. She squandered all that political capital — a 20-point lead with three weeks to go! — when she and her advisers thought they could steal the energy for that demand and convert it into another consultant-driven victory for a boring “strong and stable” Tory.

— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review.


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