Today’s deal between the Tories and the Democratic Unionists is one more sign that at least a limited normalcy is returning and that the Tory administration is likely to remain in office for several years, possibly for a full parliamentary term of five years — as argued in yesterday’s column. It guarantees DUP support for the government on “confidence and supply” terms and is renewable at the end of each parliamentary session. That means it will last until Brexit — and its key domestic votes on the Great Repeal bill — is through parliament.
It also seems to have been reached without the Tories surrendering anything very much — certainly nothing that they would not be surrendering anyway as a result of their not getting the hoped-for landslide. Everyone knew that the “dementia tax” and the proposed cuts in social spending on the elderly were doomed anyway. This agreement means that the Tories can now claim they got something — i.e., several years of power — in return for ditching them. And, finally, the financial cost of the deal — about $2.2 billion — is modest in terms of today’s debased political economy.
Nothing is certain, but this deal gives the government an effective majority of 22 votes. Since a handful of Labour MPs will cross the floor to support Brexit if it’s in trouble, a serious government defeat on it would need a career-ending rebellion by between twelve and 20 Tory Remainers. And since all the Tories ran on a manifesto pledge to implement a “clean Brexit,” that would require a dishonorable suicide by all concerned. Suicide by Tory pols I can imagine; dishonorable conduct too; but the two combined? That would take us into strange depths of the Tory imagination that even an experienced clinician like myself cannot plumb or, on this occasion, quite envisage.
Does that mean that Theresa May is out of the woods and can now look forward to remaining Tory leader and prime minister indefinitely? Not quite. My guess is that if she is still PM at the time of the Tory conference in October, she will still be in office until Brexit is safely accomplished in a little over two years. The overwhelming need for stability until then will keep her in Downing Street. What will happen then will be determined by how well she has performed in matters additional to Brexit in that period. If her reputation has recovered, she may stay on and even fight an election. But if not, the achievement of Brexit would enable her to retire honorably amid restrained applause. We’ll see. But her position is currently strengthened by a series of other developments. In short order, therefore:
1. As we move on from election night — when the shock of the result discombobulated the Tories — people are examining the statistics of recent elections and noticing that Mrs. May not only did not actually lose but even improved the Tory popular vote considerably. As the blogger Backencher pointed out:
The Tories have been, ever since 2005, increasing their share of the vote on an almost linear scale. Michael Howard, in 2005, gained 32.4% of the national vote for the Tories. From then onwards, the electoral figures speak for themselves: 36.1% (2010) ⟶ 36.8 (2015) ⟶ 42.2% (2017). It is clear that the Tories increased their vote most under Mrs May, not her immediate predecessor. David Cameron increased the Tory vote by 3.7% in 2010, then barely 0.7% further in 2015. Mrs May, however, increased the Tory vote by 6%. Her share of the vote is exactly that of Mrs Thatcher in 1987, and only 0.2% lower than Thatcher’s 1983 landslide.
The landslide didn’t happen this time because the Labour vote rose too — though to 2.4 percent behind Mrs. May’s total. Those figures make nonsense of much Tory journalism post-election, which has been lamenting that Toryism no longer appeals to the electorate and that some new form of Cameronian “modernization” is needed. The above statistics show that analysis to be the opposite of the truth — especially when we recall that the only memorable slogan of modernization was that Tories should “stop banging on about Europe and immigration” (which now looks like the worst political judgment since Ted Heath asked Britain, “Who governs Britain?” and the voters replied, “Not You.”). As all of this sinks in, the Tory party is likely to slowly reassemble behind May for the medium term.
2. Indeed, the “Big Beasts” of Toryism are already urging this course with increasing firmness. Brexit secretary David Davis, who would probably win a leadership election held now, did so on the Sunday television shows — yes, we have them in Britain too — in unmistakable terms. He declared very simply that he believed May to be a good prime minister who deserved to remain in office. That reflects, among other things, the belief of Brexiteers (now the overwhelming majority of Tories in and outside parliament) that May is committed to a “clean Brexit” by her record. She simply can’t betray the Leave camp without destroying herself. None of the presumed Remainers in the Cabinet — home secretary Amber Rudd, chancellor Philip Hammond — have anything like the status or popularity to challenge her with any prospect of benefiting themselves. Hammond in particular, who has been successively a strong Euroskeptic, a weak Remainer, a strong Remainer, and now a worried, head-shaking, equivocal Leaver, gives opportunism a bad name.
3. Jeremy Corbyn’s rock-star moment is unlikely to last — no, that’s too weak: Jeremy Corbyn’s rock-star moment cannot last. He’s a courteous and even charming extremist, but his extremism is real and on the record. To put it as bluntly as I can, he was a friend of Adams and McGuinness when the IRA was bombing London and Manchester. Not even the middle-class rock-star groupies who were cheering him at the Glastonbury festival this weekend can blind themselves to that record indefinitely. And it will be drawn to their attention. On the Reaction website, Bruce Anderson speculates that the second explanation of a Tory victory in the next election will be Jeremy himself — and his supporters:
Now that he appears to be a candidate who could win the Premiership, he and his closest associates will come under scrutiny. This will not be the crude, cack-handed nonsense that we saw during the last campaign . . . Some of the Cor-bennites are very nasty indeed. The SWP seems to have infiltrated their presence in the social media and to be determined to perpetrate vile abuse. That will not work for long. Most British voters have a sense of how politics ought to be conducted, and the adolescent rabble which now worships Mr Corbyn will put enough people off to help kill his chances.
4. In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire — which was also the aftermath of the election — a mood of anti-Tory hysteria gripped the parties, the media, and the voters. It became the conventional wisdom that the fire had been the responsibility of the “Tory cuts’” and de-regulation by the national government and the local authority. That view explains in large part why May was booed when she visited the Grenfell site. Since then it has become clear that this “narrative” is nonsense. Other local authorities — notably, Labour-controlled Camden Council — and the National Health Service had installed the same cladding on their buildings. This was the result not of de-regulation but of (perverse) regulation; it was not the result of cost-cutting — indeed it was part of the expensive rehabilitation of these properties; and it occurred under governments of both parties. As the Left’s narrative dissolves — perhaps to be followed by a very different explanation of the fire — so will the anti-Tory narrative evaporate.
5. Indeed, it’s already happening — and for a very British reason: the weather. Britain, especially London, has been suffering from an unaccustomed heatwave since the election and the Grenfell fire. It raised the temperature politically, too. People living through it, as I did not, say that it gave political life a nightmarish quality, as during the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, with an atmosphere of suppressed violence and hostility to authority. The temperature is now declining sharply as Britain regains its usual summer coolness.
Along with all the above developments, politics may be entering a cooler phase, too.