Friday, 26 August 2022

An unleadable Tory Party means post-Brexit political instability will continue

In a couple of weeks we will have a new Prime Minister, bringing an end to the strangest political summer of my lifetime. It has been a summer marked by excessive heat and drought which are themselves emblematic of perhaps the most important global political issue – if there are exceptions, they would be those of actual total war or possible nuclear war – of the lifetimes of anyone alive today. There is in any case an ongoing war in Europe, which many of us see as defining of a conflict between liberal democracy and nationalist authoritarianism. And that war has precipitated a global energy crisis and exacerbated a global economic crisis.

Multiple crises with no functioning government

Domestically, that means a rapidly worsening cost of living crisis. Inflation is at its highest since the early 1980s and still rising, with households facing their largest ever recorded fall in living standards, and the Bank of England predicts five continuous quarters of economic recession. There are multiple strikes in the rail network, the docks, the courts, the postal service and elsewhere, and more to come. With a growing ‘Don’t Pay’ campaign in the face of what for many will be impossible energy bills, talk of civil unrest and disobedience does not seem hyperbolic.

There are now chronic labour shortages in almost every occupation, so that even as food prices rise to a 40-year high there is food rotting in fields for lack of people to pick or harvest it. The NHS, and especially the ambulance service, is at breaking point, as, not unrelatedly, is the social care system. In fact it is hard to find any part of the public or private sector which is not, in some way or other, under alarming strain. The beaches are awash with sewage, like a metaphor. And, though you’d hardly know it, we are still living with the effects of a pandemic, including an estimated 1.6 million people in England alone living with Long Covid, and presumably the possibility of a new wave to come.

Throughout all this, the leadership contest means there has been, in effect, no functioning government. The notional Prime Minister, rather than acting as a responsible caretaker, has spent the summer alternating between sulking, holidaying and squeezing the last drop out of the perks of his office. Any chance Boris Johnson had of a final period of dignity to set against the depraved conduct that led to his ejection has been squandered. Most Prime Ministers end up being judged less harshly by history than they are at the time of their departure; I strongly suspect that Johnson will be assessed even more critically in the future than he is now.

Post-Brexit political instability set to continue

When this strange summer ends, it will not herald the end of the period of political instability any more than the events and crises of the summer are peculiar to the season. This isn’t a holiday that has gone horribly wrong, it’s the latest instalment of a reality there is no taking a break from. That political instability began with the 2016 referendum. Having a new Prime Minister is not going to finish, but is a part of, this post-2016 story. I don’t mean that there were no political problems before, but that since then there has been a particular sort of instability and for particular reasons.

It’s not a coincidence that the new Prime Minister will be the fourth in the six years since the referendum, the same number as held office in the thirty-one years between 1979 and 2010. Nor is it a coincidence that within those six years there have also been two general elections, massive churn in the holding of ministerial posts, an illegal prorogation of parliament, a unique judgment that the government was in contempt of parliament, numerous highly unusual constitutional events, a government openly threatening to break international law, massive stresses in the relationship between Westminster and the devolved administrations, significant pressures on the Good Friday Belfast Agreement, and perhaps the most significant rifts between ministers and the civil service in modern history. All these things reflect the way that Brexit has all but overwhelmed the capacity and norms of the UK state and political institutions.

The unleadable Tory Party

Centrally implicated in all this is the ongoing convulsion of the governing Tory Party, a convulsion now so long-lived, dating as it does to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty battles, that it should be considered chronic. This isn’t the place to discuss all of that, so here I’ll just talk about the present leadership contest. The most likely winner, Liz Truss, was not the first choice of MPs, whilst 55% of the party membership think that those MPs were wrong to have ousted Johnson, a view echoed by Conservative voters and floating voters (£). This means that Truss, assuming she wins, will not be starting with a groundswell of support even from within her own party ranks. Amongst the general public, she scores negatively in views of her ability to handle the major issues (as do Sunak and Johnson). It’s unlikely that she will experience more than short-lived political ‘honeymoon’, if that.

One of the features of Tory MPs, especially since the referendum, is how undisciplined they are. So, particularly as she isn’t their own choice, Truss will find her backbenchers prone to revolt and that will be all the more so if, as rumoured, she packs the cabinet with those from the hard Brexit right wing, very possibly including preposterous blowhard David Frost, to the exclusion of ‘Red Wallers’ and ‘One Nationers’. There are even rumours that the peculiar Thatcherite has-been John Redwood will be disinterred, a word which in this case would be almost literally true. A more broad-based administration would just bring the backbench schisms into the cabinet. Already there is speculation that the weakness of her position amongst MPs will force her to call an early election, risky as that would be.

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIPB) could be an early flashpoint, if she pushes ahead with it as she has promised. Apart from facing opposition from Tories in the Lords, it’s at least possible that some of the Tory MPs who understand the damage it will do will find the courage to vote against it. If she doesn’t push ahead then, almost certainly, the ERG will mount an immediate attack. The same is true if, as some commentators speculate, she ditches the generally hard right line she has taken during the leadership contest and once more re-invents herself as some sort of consensual centrist. As much as, if not more than, her predecessors she will be constantly vulnerable to ERG extremism, whether on Brexit or other issues.

Even without that ever-present pressure, Truss is extremely ill-equipped to deal with the multiple crises she will face. She shows little sign of having the intellectual or interpersonal skills needed, and her sub-Johnson boosterism is not going to carry her very far in the present context. Attacking doomsters, gloomsters and ‘declinists’ may have some appeal to party members. To a country feeling distinctly gloomy, if not doomed, and visibly declining, its appeal will be very limited indeed.

It may be that, as many expect, and as Rees-Mogg and David Frost amongst others are urging, she will launch into a libertarian, deregulatory frenzy, delighting the Tory right by ‘delivering’ on what they meant by Brexit. If so, that is very unlikely to appeal to a country – including many Tory voters – that sees an urgent need not for deregulation but for, at the least, stronger and better regulation of utilities, in particular, as well as for a bigger and more interventionist State. If energy prices continue to rise as predicted then the political pressure for the latter will be irresistible. It’s also much more difficult in practice to deliver deregulation than to talk airily about making a ‘bonfire of EU regulations’, for the reasons I outlined in my previous post, the more so in the absence of any explicit political mandate or much administrative bandwidth to do so. Yet some right-wing Brexiters, such as Allister Heath (£), writing in loose-sphinctered terror of “ultra remainers mobilising to cancel it”, are convinced that “Truss is Brexit’s last hope” and rely on her to show that it can “improve lives, bolster the economy and fix broken institutions”.

It's here that a central feature of the rolling post-referendum political instability becomes obvious. One aspect of this is that although not all of the current crises are attributable to Brexit, many of them, including the interlinked ones of inflation, lack of growth and labour shortages, are at least partly connected to it. Truss will not be able to admit that, but nor will she be able to show it ‘improving lives, bolstering the economy or mending institutions’. Heath and other diehard Brexiters still don’t grasp it, and probably never will, but there is simply no way that Brexit can do any of those things. The problems and costs it has entailed already are not, as he has it, “implementation failures”, they’re what Brexit means in reality. Truss can’t tell them that, either.

The more fundamental issue is that this detachment from reality has now infected Tory politics more generally. So what defines post-Brexit politics is not just that the government can’t tell the truth about Brexit but that it can’t tell the truth about anything. Instead, just as with Brexit, all the bad news and forecasts of worse to come are dismissed as a new kind of Project Fear, as pessimism spread by ‘experts’ and the media. So even as they berate ‘remainers’ for failing to differentiate between Brexit and non-Brexit causes of the UK’s multiple problems, they themselves adopt an undifferentiated approach to those problems.

The unleadable in pursuit of the impossible

These three features of post-referendum political instability – the overwhelming of the institutions of the State and politics, the unleadability of the Tory party, and the inability to tell the truth – are obviously linked. They are linked in the impossibility of putting into practice the false and contradictory promises of Brexit. More generally, they are linked in the way that the Tory Party has reached a point where the things most of its members and many of its voters want are impossible.

Fundamentally, what they want are not just the impossible illusions of Brexit but a string of impossible illusions that go with it. These are at once less facile and more unattainable than blue passports and Imperial measures. They want a country that resembles an imagined past of stability, homogeneity and greatness. For all that they talk of love of country, they profoundly dislike the country as it actually is and want the government to provide them with another one, preferably located a long way from Europe, but it’s one which never existed and can’t be created now. Worse, the very policies it draws them to – most obviously Brexit – actually reduce such stability, homogeneity and greatness as exists.

They’re not completely crazy, and know the Empire has gone for good, but they still think in unrealistic terms about ‘the Anglosphere’ and the Commonwealth. They are now primarily an English party and, though they remain notionally pro-Union, they still think in unrealistic terms of it being one in which the non-English parts ‘know their place’. They want to visit stately homes without hearing about the realities of where the money came from to build them, and to enjoy a spell of hot weather without hearing about the realities of climate change. They want to be ‘free to say what we think’ without accepting the reality that others have the freedom to criticise what they say. Above all, they want a country of common sense and simple solutions and, though they aren’t unique in wanting that, they want it in a particular way, wherein complex reality is not just an irritant to them but a plot against them.

Brexit was a pivotal moment because it seemed to be a portal not just to leaving the EU, but to delivering all this and more. The ‘silent majority’ had finally spoken and been heard. But it has turned to ashes. Not only have none of the wider illusions been delivered (indeed many of them are further away than ever) but the reality of Brexit itself proved to be entirely different to what they thought it would be. That is why so few celebrate it, although they may still cling to the hope that the dream will eventually be realised. Meanwhile, they have simply added remainers and saboteurs to the long list of enemies within, along with ‘lefty lawyers’, the BBC, and the more amorphous ‘human rights brigade’, ‘metropolitan elite’, ‘Woke’ Establishment, and ‘the Blob’; and added Brexit betrayal to their long list of unassuageable grievances.

In that framing, Sunak is now depicted as ‘soft’ on Brexit, for apparently having urged some caution over the NIPB and extensive regulatory divergence when he was Chancellor. That’s linked to him being seen as captured by the ‘Treasury Blob’, and it’s notable that he has couched his (failing) message of ‘fiscal prudence’ in the terms that ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’. The first shows just how hard line the party members have become on Brexit itself, whilst their rejection of what, to them, used to be unquestionable fiscal orthodoxy shows how deeply they have embraced the Johnsonian cakeism that Brexit was sold on.

By contrast, Truss has convinced them that she might make Brexit a success, and offers the ‘simplist’ prescription of tax cuts as a cure-all, whilst gleefully lashing out at the ‘enemies within’. Above all, she has not challenged the impossibility of their illusions in even the mildest of ways. Hence they favour her as their leader, although neither candidate is the Thatcher-Johnson-Farage amalgam they crave.

Ironically, if the Tories could find someone with the genuine leadership qualities that both the country and their party actually need, that person’s first task would be to tell them that what they want is undeliverable. In the absence of that, they will eventually denounce any leader as being – as they said of David Cameron, as well as of May and even of Johnson – ‘not a real Conservative’. And, indeed, who could be, for as long as a real Conservative leader means someone who will make the impossible become real?

What happens now?

None of this is entirely new within the Tory Party (anyone remember ‘the Monday Club’? Or, more obscurely, ‘Selsdon Man’?), but what is new is that there is now almost nothing else within the Tory Party, which also opens up a schism between the party itself and some parts of its core vote. How its hapless condition will play out in the long-term is difficult to know.

One possibility, especially as the economic crisis gets worse, is that it gathers force and becomes more vicious, gaining new recruits, and perhaps even forging links, if only informal, with the street-fighting hard Right. It’s not a very long walk from that to Ur-Fascism. More optimistically, it reflects a mainly ageing demographic which in the not-too-distant future will become a political irrelevance. Or perhaps – more likely in opposition than in government, and certainly not under Truss or Sunak, neither of whom has the vision or character needed to do it – the Tory Party will remake itself in the somewhat more pragmatic mould that has arguably characterised most of its history.

But for the immediate future, we can only expect the post-Brexit instability to continue. None of the things being discussed in the leadership contest remotely speaks to the scale of the country’s problems, or to the deep causes that most of them have. Certainly there is no recognition of the realities of Brexit, how these intersect with the other problems, or of the damage Brexit is doing to just about every sector even without those other problems. Still less is there any glimmer of recognition of how diminished the UK’s standing in the world is as a result of Brexit and of the politics it has brought in its wake, or how widely Truss is distrusted by many of the UK’s key allies.

One particularly serious economic consequence of this continuing instability is that, as has been the case ever since the Brexit vote, vitally needed business investment and foreign direct investment will continue to be much weaker than it would have been. This, as well as pressure on sterling, will be exacerbated if the row with the EU over the NIPB continues and worsens: just as in the years since the referendum, why invest when uncertainty hangs over the future terms of around half of the UK’s trade? The EU reaction to such a row, I assume, would be to ‘play it long’, partly because the continued uncertainty hurts the UK more than the EU, partly in the hope that this government only has two years to run.

An era ending?

Of course if the Tories not only get through the next two years but also contrive to win the next election then all bets are off, for the EU as for all of us. But to me it feels – and a feeling is all it can be until it happens, when it becomes truism – that something fundamental is shifting. It seems rather like the tail-end of the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-1979 or of the Major government of 1992-1997. In both cases there was a sense of not just the government but a political era dying, and I think it’s there again now.

There’s already some polling evidence for that shift, but much depends on the Labour Party being able to capitalise on it, including the extent to which they are willing to get real about the damage of Brexit. That’s possible, if only because it would reflect the settled, indeed growing, view of the general public that Brexit was a mistake. It’s also reported (£) that both right and left wings of the party are now pressuring Keir Starmer to take a “softer” Brexit position. More broadly, Labour will need to develop a convincing policy on the economic crisis in whatever form it exists by the time of the next election. Again, there are already some signs of that. What is still missing compared with 1979 or 1997, and much harder to create, is a wider narrative of a desirable and deliverable future, rather than just a crisis management plan.

What links the Brexit policy and the wider policies that Labour need is the requirement to meet the challenge that the Tory Party manifestly can’t: to break with the culture of fantasy and lies, the denial of, and active hostility to, reality. That is the poison that Brexit exemplified and bequeathed which has to be sucked out of the body politic. It won’t be at all easy given how widely it has spread and how deep the wells from which it draws, not least the bottomless one of the pro-Brexit media.

As to what happens in the meantime, about the best that can be hoped for is that not too much more damage is done under Truss. It could be considerable. But, precisely because the only certainty is continuing instability, it is perfectly possible that events may quickly unfold, and in ways very different from those that anyone expects.

 

This is intended as the last post before the election of the next PM, so unless something unexpected happens I won’t blog next Friday. After that, I’ll be on holiday for two weeks so will unfortunately miss the start of the new regime, and the next post will be on Friday 23 September.

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