Both Prime Minister Theresa May and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn spoke well in yesterday’s parliamentary debate on the Queen’s Speech — an occasion heavy with tradition and ceremony but dedicated in reality to the sober business of setting out the government’s legislative program for the next year. As every pundit has now pointed out, this Queen’s Speech is a stripped-down program from which most of the controversial items in May’s doomed election manifesto (her “dementia tax,” for instance) have been removed.
It is now devoted largely to bills that will implement the domestic reforms needed to put Brexit into effect once negotiations with the European Union have concluded. Quite cleverly, the legislative draughtsmen have put most of these items in positive terms so that it will be tricky for opposition spokesmen to object to bills that promote free-trade agreements with friendly countries or that give Britain’s fishermen control of their traditional fishing grounds.
Despite the near-hysterical political atmosphere of the days since the election — an atmosphere made more poisonous by the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire and the angry public outcry it has provoked — the debate itself was a surprisingly calm and friendly affair. It began with the two traditionally “witty” speeches from backbenchers from opposing sides. This time they were genuinely witty. That lightened the atmosphere. Then both May and Corbyn delivered strong and effective parliamentary performances that cheered up their troops.
That was far easier for Corbyn than for May. He had a “good war” in the campaign, and he delivered a better result for Labour than almost anyone except himself expected. He’s currently the beneficiary of the myth that Labour “won” and that the momentum of that victory will shortly carry the party into office. Not least, Corbyn’s speech yesterday, tough but not rancorous or bitter, was well calculated to appeal to both sides of the House. Like many other voters, even Tories may be starting to “like” Corbyn because of his courtesy.
May had the more difficult task of reviving and uniting a party that blames her for its loss of seats following a bad campaign built around her. Her bad public image has actually got worse since the election because of her awkward and “frozen” response to the Grenfell fire. That hostility has been exaggerated and unfair — even some Labour local politicians have testified to how helpful and reliable she has been in working with them on joint national-local projects and emergency programs. After a brief pause, she has put in place a series of measures to help the Grenfell tenants and to discover the causes of the fire. She met them privately in meetings that seemingly went well. In effect, for the last week she has been pilloried for being shy and emotionally reserved — even, dare one say, for being typically English.
She began her speech by apologizing for the immediate delay in responding effectively to the Grenfell fire. She dealt in detail with the inquiry into it, answering 16 questions from MPs, and with wider matters about the housing-safety regulations as well as the legislative program. She was dogged, thorough, practical, and in command of her brief. She even cracked a few jokes at appropriate moments. By the time she concluded, she no longer fitted George Osborne’s malicious description of “a dead woman walking.”
These two strong performances, Theresa May’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s debate on the Queen’s Speech, were illustrations of a larger return to political normalcy: Two-party politics is back.
These two strong performances were illustrations of a larger return to political normalcy: Two-party politics is back. MPs representing the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and other small parties were greatly reduced in numbers by the election. In Scotland alone, the Tories and Labour both increased the number of their MPs at the cost of the shrunken Scot-Nats. In electoral mathematics, the share of the total vote taken by the two major parties rose to 83 percent — sharply higher than the mid-60s figure of Tony Blair’s day. UKIP, which had only one MP in the past, lost both him and five-sixths of its support in the country. However temporarily, it’s back to the Tory–Labour ding-dong of most of the 20th century.
The exception to this new status quo, of course, is Northern Ireland’s newly important Democratic Unionist party, which is haggling over the terms of its support for the May government as I write. Most observers think that such a deal is a live certainty because the solidly unionist DUP would do nothing whatever that might bring a longstanding friend of the IRA like Jeremy Corbyn anywhere near the inside of Ten Downing Street
But could a minority Tory government, with or without the support of the Democratic Unionist party, stay in power for more than a few months? On the morrow of the election the sentiment on all sides was: No, it couldn’t do so. That fueled the demands for May’s immediate resignation or defenestration. Briefly, it seemed inevitable.
As a young parliamentary correspondent in the 1970s, however, I watched Jim Callaghan’s government survive for two years after it lost its majority in April 1977. When Callaghan left office following his defeat at the hands of Mrs. Thatcher, he did so amid general respect after a failed but respectable administration. But if the DUP joins the Tories in a de facto coalition, Prime Minister May would enjoy an effective parliamentary majority of 22. That’s more than enough to survive for the full parliamentary term of five years.
Tory ministers and MPs woke up to this ambiguous reality in a short time. That explains why by the Monday evening after defeat the cabinet had been reshuffled, talks with the DUP were taking place, and the 1922 Committee (which is the forum for Tory backbenchers) had given the prime minister a warm reception once she had humbled herself. (“I got us into this mess and I will get us out.”) It is not inconceivable that Mrs. May could serve as prime minister for a full Parliament and lead the Tories into the next election.
It’s not likely, though. Rightly or wrongly, she is currently regarded by the great majority of Tories as unelectable in any future U.K. election. And since a contest could occur at a moment not of the government’s choosing — following, for instance, a breach with the DUP — Mrs. May may not be a dead woman walking, but she is an accident waiting to happen. The disposition of most of her colleagues is to allow her a little time in Downing Street during which the party can arrange an orderly leadership election and a smooth transfer to a new prime minister. That’s how it could happen — and how it likely will happen.
As the French say, though: Nothing lasts like the provisional. May is in possession of the ball. Those who want to succeed her will support a leadership contest only when they are confident they can win it — which means that, at any one moment, most of them will oppose it. (At present the friends of Boris Johnson, foreign secretary, are shaking their heads solemnly and opining that a contest cannot be held for two years — a sure sign that Brexit secretary David Davis would win one now.) Most influential Tories seem to agree that the party needs stability in order to recover its mojo in power and allow the anti-Tory hysteria in London to dissipate. There are signs that is happening; yesterday’s “Day of Rage” march in London attracted not the thousands expected but only a ragged few hundred. In addition, the more we learn about the Grenfell fire, the less it seems to be a simple morality tale about Tory “cuts” and deregulation. Grenfell was highly regulated, if perversely, and both parties nationally and locally were involved in that regulation and in supervising its expensive refurbishment.
As the French say: Nothing lasts like the provisional. May is in possession of the ball.
Given that a week is a long time in politics, perhaps the most likely scenario is that May will continue until Brexit has been passed, then (having secured an honorable place in history) announce her resignation, preside over the selection of her successor, and retire to the Upper House. That has to be one of several scenarios. Whatever happens, though, Brexit will be central to this new two-party politics — as it has been in establishing the new two-party status quo.
Brexit was the reason that May enjoyed the prospect of a landslide at the start of the campaign. The referendum had shaken up the supporters of both parties, but the Tories were most favored to gain new votes from the shakeup, as those UKIP defectors from Labour were defecting a second time to the Tories. Nationalist-minded Labour voters would also join them. It held out the glittering mirage of a national Tory majority. Then something happened that no one expected and very few people noticed except the voters.
Corbyn and his close ally, John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor, almost alone on the opposition front bench, neutralized Brexit as an issue not only by supporting it but also by embracing its clearest expression: leaving the single market. Result: Brexit was no long the Tory party’s unique selling proposition. Both major parties pledged in their manifestos to leave the single market (i.e., to implement a “hard Brexit”). Voters pocketed this pledge and turned to other issues — notably, the economy, on which the Tories did not have the clear advantage over Labour. There’s a lot to be said about that — in a different article — but here the point is that UKIP voters came to both parties, instead of overwhelmingly to the Tories, and that Labour voters stayed where they were. And since Brexit had been neutralized, the voters danced to Corbyn’s tune. His support rose from 28 to 40 percent in the course of the campaign.
Corbyn did well to win more than 30 extra seats from the Tories. But at the finish line he was still 50 seats behind them. The Tories won the largest share of the popular vote (42 percent), the largest number of parliamentary seats (318), and the right to form a government if they mustered a majority to sustain one in the House of Commons. These are all the traditional tests of victory in a parliamentary election. Several Tories have said in recent days that their victory “feels like a defeat.” Maybe so. But it wasn’t a defeat, and the rest of the Parliament is likely to confirm that.
That’s especially so since Brexit is likely to return to center stage as the dominating issue for the next few years. Both parties are divided on Brexit, but Labour is more deeply and dangerously divided than the Tories. Conservatives have never been a sincere pro-EU party. Most of their leaders have embraced the European idea superficially in the last four decades, but their rank and file even among MPs has been skeptical to hostile. The referendum vote has made the Tory party immovably anti. Now even Remainers in the Tory leadership realize they cannot push the party into an anti-Brexit posture; the most they can do is delay and soften Britain’s departure — and even that will have to happen in the dark.
Labour is in a much more complicated position. The party in its manifesto has just committed itself to leaving the single market. Yet Corbyn and McDonnell are in a small parliamentary minority supporting that view. Most Labour MPs are Remainers, some passionately so. Fifty Labour parliamentarians renounced that pledge on the day Parliament resumed. On the other hand, the Labour party in the country is divided into three factions: Yuppie and Bobo social-democratic strivers who agree with the 50 Remainers; Momentum hard leftists who support Corbyn and Labour’s leftward drift above all; and traditional Labour blue-collar voters, who are tempted to stray into UKIP or Tory territory over the Brexit issue. Herding cats would be child’s play compared to keeping this menagerie in the same cage.
In this battle the Tories have majority opinion on their side. If they play it sensibly, they can regain the landslide potential they threw away in the last month. To do that, however, they will have to disprove an old saying: The Tory party never panics — except in a crisis.