With parliament shutting up shop for the summer holidays and the Brexit negotiations formally started, the dust is beginning to settle after Britain’s bizarre general election – but only a fool would pretend to know what happens next.
What was extraordinary about the election was that nearly everyone expected it to turn out differently. All but a couple of opinion polls, every columnist in the national newspapers, every TV pundit – and the word on the street from canvassers from all parties – pointed to a giant victory for Theresa May’s Tories and humiliation for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, campaigning on what everyone said was the most left-wing manifesto since 1983.
Even Corbyn’s inner circle thought Labour was heading for a pummelling until the moment the exit poll was announced at 10pm on election night, and Corbyn’s opponents on the right of his party were preparing a leadership challenge. “I think we’re fucked,” a Corbyn insider told me the day before the election, “Tory majority of 80 or 100.” “It’s got to be Yvette, hasn’t it?” said a Labour candidate never noted for deviation from party loyalty. “If we’ve got this wrong, it’s the end of punditry,” said an anti-Corbyn liberal columnist.
Instead, the Tories lost 13 seats and Labour gained 30, so instead of a Conservative landslide, we now have a hung parliament, with May surviving thanks to Tory gains in rural Scotland at the expense of the Scottish National Party. She is now reliant on the hardline Northern Irish Protestant Democratic Unionist Party for a majority in the House of Commons. May, rather than Corbyn, is the focus for speculation about which of her colleagues will stick the knife in the back.
In terms of seats, Labour lost – but it did better than in the last general election in 2015. And its share of the vote, 40%, was bigger than at any general election since 2001. The euphoria of confounding expectations engulfed the party’s membership, which is overwhelmingly pro-Corbyn. “Nothing can stop us now!” declared the Corbyn insider who only 48 hours before had said that Labour was fucked.
Corbyn’s position as leader is now unassailable, his critics mostly fallen silent. He was welcomed with open arms by the residents who survived the Grenfell Tower fire. The crowd at the Glastonbury festival chanted his name. All the columnists who said he was unelectable have apologised for being wrong. Opinion polls suggest that an election tomorrow would see Corbyn sweeping into No 10 Downing Street.
But there isn’t going to be an election tomorrow. And it could look very different again in a couple of months.
There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, it is completely unclear what will happen to the May government. The Tories are livid at her lacklustre election campaign and many want her to go – but there is no obvious successor, so it is likely that she will carry on, for the summer at least. For the holiday season, it’s batten-down-the-hatches time for the Conservatives.
Beyond September, however, the crystal ball clouds over. The negotiations on Britain leaving the European Union are the government’s sole focus now that nearly everything else in the Tory manifesto has been ditched, and no one has a clue how they will progress. Just about the only safe bet is that we have not heard the last of divisions within the government on its Brexit goals, strategy and tactics.
May might be able to contain the disputes, but she might not. She has the advantage that there is no consensus in her party about who comes next, and she can rely for now on Conservative MPs whose nightmare scenario is another general election in which they lose their seats to a resurgent Labour. On the other hand, she is one spectacular cabinet resignation away from defenestration, and one major parliamentary revolt away from being forced to go to the country again. “Strong and stable” – May’s campaign mantra – is as far from reality as it could be.
With the economy faltering and business jittery in the face of Brexit’s unknown challenges – and with a hysterically Eurosceptic press setting the political agenda – anything could happen.
Every day brings a new warning from big manufacturing and financial companies that “hard Brexit”, leaving the EU single market and customs union, would trigger them to quit Britain. Every day brings a threat from the Sun or the Daily Mail that anything but hard Brexit would be treachery to the will of the people as expressed in the 2016 referendum (won by ‘leave’ by a very small majority). The cabinet is openly divided between the two camps, with chancellor Philip Hammond determined to minimise the impact of getting out of the EU and a phalanx of hard Brexiteers briefing against him.
It is going to get nastier, and the Tories’ infighting over Brexit can only make the business jitters worse. Big companies are already planning their moves out of post-Brexit Britain in case the “soft Brexit” option – remain in the single market and the customs union – does not prevail. Smaller companies whose main export markets are continental European, as well as those reliant on recruitment of workers or supply of components from the rest of the EU, are hesitating about investment. Farmers don’t know where their spud-pickers will come from next year. Universities are panicking about the collapse in EU applications for courses. Non-UK EU citizens are leaving. It is a gigantic balls-up.
The negotiations on Britain leaving the European Union are the government’s sole focus now that nearly everything else in the Tory manifesto has been ditched, and no one has a clue how they will progress.
Labour, meanwhile, is sitting pretty – up to a point. It can watch from the sidelines as the government ties itself in knots over Brexit, using guerrilla tactics in parliament to exploit Tory divisions, just as it did in 1992 over the Maastricht treaty that created the EU.
But Labour has its own problems. It is still a long way from electoral victory, particularly if planned boundary changes to reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies are introduced before the next election: it won 262 seats to the Tories’ 317 this time and would be further behind in a smaller House of Commons. And although it did well among the young, ethnic minorities and graduates, particularly in London and the south, it performed poorly in the most of the north and the Midlands and among the old and the white working class.
Corbyn might have proved wrong the critics who said that he would lead Labour to electoral catastrophe, but he still has not won the support of the majority of his MPs. They remain, for the most part, the same ones that voted no confidence in him last year: because the election was so early, the newbie Labour MPs are largely trade union and local government veterans chosen by union-dominated regional committees rather than by constituency party members, and they are not particularly left-wing.
There is a massive Labour conflict in the offing over whether anti-Corbyn MPs should be selected as candidates again, with Corbynistas mobilising for party rule-changes to make it easier to get rid of sitting MPs and their opponents using all means possible to resist. This is potential gang warfare, not a new kind of politics – and, as anyone who observed the previous Labour civil war in the 1980s will tell you, it’s ugly.
Just as important, Labour is in a real mess on policy. Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell claimed its 2017 manifesto marked a massive break from “austerity”, but for all the rhetoric, it borrowed rather a lot from the programmes it fought on in 2015 under Ed Miliband and in 2010 under Gordon Brown.
The main differences were promises to end student loans, end the public sector pay freeze, renationalise the railways (after a fashion) and put up taxation on big corporations and the rich. All good populist stuff, and the package certainly went down well with a lot of voters: Labour got more votes in 2017 than in any general election since 2001. There was also a confidence about the Labour campaign that was missing in 2010 and 2015, and it grew as the Tories’ campaign went into melt-down over what Labour called their “dementia tax”. (In fact, taxing assets to cover costs of care in old age is both sensible and inevitable, but that’s another story.)
It is going to get nastier, and the Tories’ infighting over Brexit can only make the business jitters worse. Big companies are already planning their moves out of post-Brexit Britain in case the “soft Brexit” option – remain in the single market and the customs union – does not prevail
But Labour’s platform was cobbled together in a hurry – the party was as surprised by May’s decision to call an election as everyone else and was not ready for it, despite its claims from late last year to be on an election footing. And because the media consensus was that Labour couldn’t win, Labour’s offer never got the scrutiny it will surely get next time.
The lacunae in Labour’s position are obvious. McDonnell claimed that everything was costed, but it was a back-of-a-fag-packet job. There was little if any detail on what Labour would do for small businesses, virtually nothing on the online world, nothing on urban regeneration.
All of that’s easy enough to sort out, at least in theory, but other things are not. Most importantly, Labour’s position on Brexit is completely incoherent. Corbyn and McDonnell are old hard leftists from the 1970s who, like their mentor and hero Tony Benn, see the European project as a capitalist conspiracy – hence their failure to campaign for remain last year. Most Labour MPs and middle-class Labour voters are pro-Europeans – but most working-class Labour voters are not. Squaring the circle will be as hard for Labour as for the Tories.
As the newspapers used to say, “Watch this space”.
About the author
Paul Anderson is a journalist, author and lecturer. He was editor of Tribune and deputy editor of the New Statesman and currently works at the University of Essex and the Guardian. He is at http://paulandersonjournalist.com/.