Since last Thursday, British politics has been suffering from a previously unknown neurosis to which I have decided to give the name paradoxical paranoia. It’s a condition in which the patient responds paradoxically — to a fright by reckless bravery, and to soothing or comforting news by timid, withdrawn immobility. In this case the fright and the consolation were the same thing experienced by different people: namely, last Thursday’s local elections, which were better for the Tories than expected and worse for Labour.
They were a surprise because, other things being equal, the governing party usually does badly in local off-year elections, which are an opportunity for disgruntled voters, including its own natural supporters, to deliver a “protest vote.” On the other hand, the main opposition party usually makes hay from the government mistakes.
That was expected to be the pattern in spades last Thursday. In addition to their general handicap of being the government, the Tories had barely lived through a terrible fortnight — with a scandal involving the wrongful deportation of U.K. citizens of West Indian origin (the Windrush scandal); the forced resignation of the home secretary, Amber Rudd, after misleading Parliament over it, apparently because she hadn’t read her briefing papers; nine government defeats on key anti-Brexit amendments in the House of Lords; and a further defeat for May in the “Brexit cabinet,” which turned down her compromise proposal on U.K. membership of the EU customs union, which Brexiteers (including, later, Boris Johnson) described as “complicated and unworkable.”
With the exception of May’s defeat in the Brexit cabinet, these were all unqualified setbacks. In advance, therefore, the media were forecasting a disastrous night for the Tories and large gains for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, fueled as it is by the passionate campaigning of the hard-left Momentum ginger group.
Neither really happened. The Tories actually gained seats and local government councils outside London. In the capital itself, the Tories held onto their two flagship boroughs, in Westminster and Wandsworth, which Labour, the left-wing Momentum movement, and London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, had marked down as their expected gains, and they unexpectedly won control of another in Barnet. Mayor Khan had to quietly disappear from the counting of votes in Wandsworth when it became clear that the Tories were going to hang on to their “jewel” — mainly due to the local Tories who have kept taxes at roughly half the level of those in its Labour-controlled neighbor. Despite these consolations for the Right, however, Labour consolidated its dominance of London and the major cities even as it failed to make gains in the suburbs and shires.
But there were no big surprises — no landslide for any party, gains here offset by losses there, and a status quo in local government that still leaves the Tories as the largest party. Three different statistical projections of the overall total of votes designed to predict what the next House of Commons would look like suggest a “hung Parliament” with no party able to form a government without coalition partners.
There were no big surprises — no landslide for any party, gains here offset by losses there, and a status quo in local government that still leaves the Tories as the largest party.
But that may be four years away, and besides, there were lots of little surprises, which, taken together, point in a more complicated but more optimistic direction for the Right. Paul Goodman lists some on them here on the Conservative Home website, which also has a pretty full account of particular local results for Americans fascinated by U.K. election minutiae.
My own take on these little surprises follows in ascending order of importance:
1. Labour did badly in areas with a large Jewish vote — and that probably cost it some of its target constituencies, such as Barnet. These losses were a consequence of the widespread (and in my view justified) impression that Jeremy Corbyn, if not himself anti-Semitic, was not prepared to condemn anti-Semitism in plain terms because he knew it was embraced by some of the hard-Left activists who joined Labour to support him. This has been a major public controversy in Britain in the last month, with both public meetings and a House of Commons debate to protest anti-Semitic abuse of Jewish Labour MPs from Labour activists online and in person. It will probably drag on because (though most commentators are discreet on this delicate topic) U.K. Muslims are now a large Labour-supporting bloc and control constituency parties in East London, Birmingham, and elsewhere. The Muslim vote is considerably larger and more concentrated than the Jewish vote; its concerns fit in comfortably with the “anti-imperialism” of the Corbynite Left; and it’s needed by Labour to compensate for the loss of its traditional strongholds in Scotland and the English working class. But it brings with it frequent controversies over, inter alia, anti-Semitism. So unless Jeremy Corbyn is very careful — and there are no known instances of his being so — he is likely to drive out of Labour a Jewish constituency that until the 1970s was a reliable component of the broad Labour coalition. If this loss and the reason for it were a shock to Jeremy Corbyn, however, he has shown little sign of it. He gives routine disavowals of anti-Semitism and moves calmly on — a textbook positive case of paradoxical paranoia.
2. After almost disappearing into the doldrums, the Liberal Democrats have staged a modest revival from a low base. They have done so mainly in areas that voted Remain in the Brexit referendum. It’s also likely that they picked up votes from progressive middle-class voters disturbed by the reports of anti-Semitic eruptions within Labour. Paul Goodman suggests that Labour may be getting a reputation as the “nasty” party not only among Jewish voters but also with their sympathetic neighbors, and progressive-minded middle-class voters more generally. If so, the Lib Dems should be able to rebuild their political and parliamentary strength as a moderate pro-European center-Left party, more worried about anti-Semitism than about Islamophobia, and thus nervous on multiculturalism and migration. That’s a niche position in British politics, which seems to be moving in a different direction, but for reasons discussed later, it could become a much bigger niche.
The fact that U.K. Muslims are now a solid Labour constituency will more or less ensure that Sikhs and Hindus move increasingly towards the Tories.
3. The Tories had their own difficulties with ethnic voters in this election. Some of the seats they lost were attributable to the anger and concern of West Indians over the fact that the Home Office, having destroyed the records that showed they were born or naturalized British citizens, started sending them back to the islands if they couldn’t produce their own documentary proof. And when the home secretary, Amber Rudd, proved to have mislaid or misread her own briefing papers, she had to resign. It was a kind of only-slightly-funny Ealing comedy about Whitehall. She was replaced by Sajid Javid — a rising star, a reluctant Remainer, and a Muslim Thatcherite — who promptly demonstrated his independence of Theresa May by voting in the Brexit cabinet against the complicated “customs partnership” scheme she was proposing. Javid won’t win over too many Muslims to the Tories, but he will ensure that Muslims have a place in Toryism’s big tent — and that tent could get bigger. The fact that U.K. Muslims are now a solid Labour constituency will more or less ensure that Sikhs and Hindus move increasingly towards the Tories. In recent elections half their votes went to the Right. Most Jewish voters are already moving to the Tories — 77 per cent in the last election — who are now an avowedly pro-Jewish party (and friendly to Israel). And if Labour fails to disavow its anti-Semites convincingly, not all its Jewish ex-supporters will stop halfway with the Lib Dems, who have had their own troubles with pro-Palestinian activists.
And what of the Windrush West Indians? They have always voted heavily for Labour, but because they are firmly traditional Christians, a gallant minority votes Tory on social issues. Ethnic Britain is politically up for grabs. All these potential supporters, however, were alarmed by the Windrush scandal, which seemed to cast doubt on their status as British citizens. The new home secretary will set out to calm those fears, but it looks as if he will be forced by the prime minister to aggravate them. She made it clear, even during the low point of the Windrush scandal, that as part of the Brexit deal EU citizens would continue to have priority, as they do now, over Commonwealth citizens in migration policy. That wasn’t really noticed before; it will be a flashpoint now.
4. Finally, the largest ethnic group in Britain is beginning to move politically in new directions — namely, the English, and in particular the English working class. As the results rolled in on Friday, all the pundits noticed — after checking with how different constituencies had voted on Brexit — that about 70 percent of the Tory vote was now plainly a Leave or Brexit vote fueled by conservative blue-collar workers who distrusted Labour on it. Also UKIP had disintegrated, going from 16 to 2 percent of the national vote, and most of those defectors had gone to the Tories. Now, those results are the continuation of a trend throughout the Anglosphere for blue-collar workers to move right (and for middle-class professionals to move left). It was excellent news for Theresa May, since it meant that, as we began by observing, the election results were much better for the Tories than expected. So why was she looking so downbeat (after the briefest of celebrations)?
The answer was given by Professor John Curtice, currently Britain’s leading psephologist, who pointed out on the basis of these figures that the Tory party would have no hope of winning the next election unless it satisfied the aspiration of their core voters for a Brexit worthy of the name. It was a sharp reminder that, as I wrote in a previous analysis, she leads a Tory party that is a Leaver party at every level except the Cabinet, but very much including the Tory electorate. That complicates May’s calculations because it seems increasingly clear that she wants a Brexit that is very diluted indeed. Instead of being delighted that Leave voters had come to the aid of the party, therefore, she was almost visibly irritated and withdrew into herself — a textbook negative case of paradoxical paranoia provoked by success
Accordingly, Downing Street let it be known that the complicated and unworkable “customs partnership” that the Brexit sub-cabinet had rejected last week was still very much on the agenda. Indeed, she sent out the business secretary, Greg Clark, onto the Sunday talk shows to say that any other solution would cost thousands of jobs, ruin industry, etc., etc., or Project Fear Mark Two. That in turn angered the Brexiteer majority on the Tory benches and provoked Boris Johnson into describing the idea as crazy. A latent civil war now grips the Tory party.
If Theresa May decides to fight her own party, she will divide it far more damagingly than at present and she will almost certainly lose its leadership and Downing Street.
Mrs. May has mishandled this situation more brilliantly than Mr. Bean could have done. She has let herself be pushed by an alliance of the Remain majority of cabinet ministers (whom she appoints), the senior civil-servant advisers (whom she chooses), the House of Lords, the corporate establishment, the BBC, 15 or so dissident Tory MPs, and what Whitehall calls “the Great and Good” into a clash with the clear majority of her own party in Parliament and the country. Events push her in opposite directions. Last week’s election result is pushing her against her cautious instincts towards a clear Brexit, while the House of Lords, inebriated with a textbook positive case of paradoxical paranoia, passes wrecking amendments (13 by the last count) to prevent any Brexit at all. And she is in a state of calculated paralysis trying to postpone a decision on the kind of Brexit to pursue as long as she can.
If she decides to fight her own party, she will divide it far more damagingly than at present and she will almost certainly lose its leadership and Downing Street. If, on the other hand, she sides with her party and turns her weapons against the impressive but shaky parliamentary coalition of Corbynite Marxists, dispossessed social democrats, Euro-fanatic Lib-Dems and Scot-Nats, peers crazed with delusions of meritocracy, and a rump of Europeanist Tories, she might well win the parliamentary battle, especially if she makes it an issue of confidence. And if she loses that? Let her shake off her paradoxical paranoia and look again at the election results from last week. She might then see a favorable electoral landscape starting to emerge: a pro-Brexit conservative alliance that, with the death of UKIP, now brings all Leavers — provincial middle-class Tories and patriotic workers — into the same polling booth versus a Left scattered across innumerable factions with Remainers dividing between the Lib-Dems and Labour, hard-Left Corbynites battling with moderate social democrats over who truly represents socialism, and refugees from these ideological wars of the Left choosing new political loyalties they hadn’t even considered before. If Savid Javid can persuade May to give a higher priority to the Commonwealth over the EU in migration and other respects, that might give an even more vigorous shake to the electoral kaleidoscope.
Of course, there’s a case for waiting longer to see how the new political trends provoked by Brexit work themselves out. But the battle is now.