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The Palace of Westminster: The path to power is ever more tortuous (Graeme McLeane CC BY SA 2.0)


Jeremy Corbyn will not become Prime Minister any time soon. It may seem foolish to make such bold assertions in these times of political upsets; at present nothing appears as certain as that the previously unthinkable will happen. Yet, for all Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s calls for a million people to come out on the streets to force the Tories out, Corbyn’s path to 10 Downing Street is still extremely tortuous.

When I was writing for Standpoint’s June issue it looked as if Theresa May was heading for the biggest Conservative Party majority since 1983. The seemingly unlosable bet of engineering an early election — despite the constraints of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act — when they were up to 20 per cent ahead in the polls came seriously unstuck for the Tories and they lost their majority.

The Conservative strategists got one thing right and three things wrong. They were correct to believe that their vote share and total vote would soar compared to 2015; they gained nearly six percentage points and more than 2.3 million extra votes. It was the best Conservative performance in terms of total votes since 1992 and in share of the vote since 1983. By the party’s own calculations their vote should have produced a Conservative majority of well over 100.

What almost nobody, including the strategists, had foreseen is that Labour’s vote would also soar. They gained more than 40 per cent of the vote for the first time in 15 years and more votes than in any general election except 1997. Indeed, predicting Labour’s rise and Corbyn- mania would have been an extremely audacious call. Even Corbyn’s strong supporter, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, had said of him earlier this year, “Corbyn has proved completely useless . . . JC could scarcely have made a bigger hash of it by design.”

The rise in Labour’s fortunes is not merely a product of the youth vote and Corbyn’s bribe to students in promising to extinguish their debt. Youth turnout was much lower than at first thought — 59 per cent of 20-24-year-olds voted, not the more than 70 per cent speculated by some. According to YouGov’s massive 50,000-plus post-mortem survey of how people had voted, Labour had a lead over the Tories of 26 percentage points among thirtysomethings and six percentage points among fortysomethings. Only at the age of 47 did those voting Conservative start to exceed those voting Labour. This is obviously a massive cause of concern to the Tories for future elections.

The Conservative campaign had also believed that with the collapse of UKIP’s support — from more than 12 per cent in 2015 to under 2 per cent in 2017 — the vast majority of these voters would come over to the Tories. Attracting them was key to the strategy of the Tories’ election guru Sir Lynton Crosby and it explains why the campaign attempted to frame the poll in terms of Brexit. What they had not reckoned with was the degree to which many poorer voters still found the Conservative brand toxic. These voters may have been willing to vote for the indisputably right-wing Nigel Farage and UKIP; they could not bring themselves to vote for what they perceive as Tory toffs. Conservative candidates I have spoken to in seats which had a high UKIP vote share in 2015 believe that this vote went in roughly equal proportions back to Labour and to the Conservatives. Crosby had envisaged that 80 per cent of it would go to the Conservatives.

The campaign had also believed that Corbyn and his entourage’s history of sharing platforms and giving succour to Sinn Fein and to the IRA, and other terrorist organisations and anti-Western socialist regimes, would play extremely badly with the electorate and would further bolster Conservative support. Yet these attacks failed to engage the electorate: for too many of them Irish Republican violence was a thing of the distant past, and in a post-Cold War world attitudes to the Soviet Union and other hostile regimes were of little interest or relevance. Corbyn’s stance on the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent and whether he would be willing to use it — which is at odds with the Labour Party’s official policy of supporting renewal — only seemed to have a major impact in constituencies where the nuclear industry is a major employer.

His sharing of platforms with Islamist organisations and his past description of Hezbollah and Hamas as his friends — despite the Manchester and London Bridge terror attacks during the campaign — seems to have had a major impact in only four north London constituencies, all with a larger Jewish electorate: Finchley and Golders Green, Harrow East, Hendon and, to a slightly lesser extent, Chipping Barnet. All these seats had a significantly smaller swing to Labour than was seen elsewhere in London and might otherwise have been expected. If it were not for the Jewish vote turning against a Labour leader who has a record of, shall we say, excessive tolerance towards anti-Semitism, those four seats would almost certainly have also gone to Labour, and Theresa May and the Conservatives would be in much greater difficulty than they are.

The Conservatives in general — and May in particular — are in a dramatically weakened position compared to before the general election. If parliamentary saboteurs were threatening Brexit before June as May claimed, one would have to imagine that the whole process was in real trouble now. Yet the Conservatives can — it is my contention — look forward to five years of strong and stable government with, or more likely in the short to medium term without, May.

To see why, one needs to look at the parliamentary arithmetic. The Conservatives have 318 seats — or rather 317 if one does not include Speaker John Bercow, who stood as “Speaker seeking re-election” rather than as a Conservative — and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which will now certainly prop them up, have ten seats. This means that the pro-government voices in the Commons can rely on 326 votes—one is lost due to the fact that one of the four Deputy Speakers, the Conservative Eleanor Laing, does not vote—a bare majority of the 650 MPs in the House of Commons. The opposition can, however, only rely on 313 votes. There are 322 MPs for parties other than the Conservatives or DUP but there are two Labour Deputy Speakers who do not vote and seven Sinn Fein MPs who do not turn up. It is a core tenet of Irish Republicanism going back to 1918 that its MPs should be abstentionist, as taking part at Westminster would give legitimacy to the, in their eyes, illegal occupation of Ireland by Britain. Thus the new government has an effective majority of 13 — and, as I argue below, possibly 15, meaning seven or eight votes would have to switch sides for it to fall.

It is true that the opposition votes are fairly solid. With the exception of the pro-Remain and usually anti-Tory but more fiercely anti-Republican independent Unionist MP for North Down, Lady Hermon, there are hardly any opposition MPs who could be persuaded to back the Conservative government on anything. On EU matters the government may also receive occasional support from the three remaining pro-Brexit Labour MPs on the Right of the party: Frank Field, Kate Hoey and John Mann. With the possible exception of Graham Stringer, the other Labour Brexiteers — men such as Dennis Skinner and Kelvin Hopkins — are on the far Left of the party and are committed Corbynistas. And the Conservatives will certainly not be able to make another deal with the Liberal Democrats so long as Brexit remains the central issue of the day.

As in 2010, when the Conservatives also fell short of a majority, the Cabinet Secretary — this time Sir Jeremy Heywood — favoured a full coalition government rather than a more modest “confidence and supply” arrangement, i.e. the smaller party backing the government in votes of confidence and on budget matters. The logic of the senior civil service is that a full coalition would lead to greater stability, but this time it will not happen although the option of moving from confidence and supply to coalition has deliberately been left open.

There is every reason to believe that the Conservative-DUP arrangement will be an extremely stable one; from the DUP point of view Corbyn is anathema because of his virulent support for Irish Republicanism. The DUP might well have been happy to have come to an arrangement with Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband, or at least used the potential of such a deal as a bargaining chip to obtain better terms from the Tories. With Corbyn, the sole concern of the DUP is keeping a Republican fellow-traveller out of Downing Street.

Conservative MPs wish to avoid an early election at all costs. If the Tories failed to achieve a majority when they entered an election campaign with a 20-point poll lead it will be extremely difficult to persuade MPs that another avoidable election — even if the party were led by Boris Johnson, with all his apparent voter appeal — is a good idea. Conservative back-bench MPs are generally willing to give in to any DUP demands so long as they are financial. They have come to terms with the idea that Ulster will be awash with pork. They would also have no objection to seeing a new phalanx of DUP peers in the House of Lords.

If the DUP were to make demands on moral or sectarian issues this would create greater problems for some Tory MPs, but such demands seem extremely unlikely. Concerns have been raised that the DUP takes an anti-abortion stance and is traditionalist on gay marriage and other moral issues. These are, however, devolved matters. It is inconceivable that the laws covering England, Scotland or Wales will be reversed at the behest of the DUP. The United Kingdom parliament will not now be imposing liberalisation on Northern Ireland, but then neither did the Coalition and Conservative governments over the last seven years, or indeed the previous Labour government over its 13 years.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act — which the Tories pledged to repeal in their manifesto but which with the current parliamentary arithmetic is there to stay — makes a confidence and supply arrangement much more stable now than when it was last tried with the Lib-Lab pact of 1977-8. As Alistair Michie and the late Simon Hoggart record in their fascinating 1978 inside account of that arrangement The Pact (reissued by Faber & Faber, 2015, £14) that arrangement was endlessly teetering on the brink of collapse over trivial issues, most significantly increases in duty on petrol and the system to be used for direct elections to the European Parliament. Then governments could fall over losing a minor vote on a budget matter and indeed other defeats. With the Fixed-term Parliaments Act the only thing that brings down a government is the passing of an explicit motion of no confidence using the specific wording in the Act: “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.” Unlike in the late 1970s, the whips will not fear that the government will fall over a defeat on an obscure bill. For the government to get its legislation through Westminster, DUP MPs will have to be much more present than they have traditionally been; Northern Irish MPs in general have a poor Commons attendance record, preferring to stay in the constituencies. But surely the goodies they will be able to bring back to their constituencies will make their Westminster sojourns worthwhile.

Past governments have seen their majorities eroded over time via deaths and subsequent by-election defeats. It is why the Lib-Lab pact was necessary in 1977 to keep Jim Callaghan in office and why John Major’s government lost its majority before 1997 although it had one of 21 after its election victory in 1992. Yet something has changed.

Like Dickens’s Tiny Tim, Conservative MPs do not die — at least as long as they remain in parliament. Death rates for Tory MPs and Labour MPs used to be fairly similar. But since 2010 no Conservative MP has died in office — the last Tory to die in situ was Eric Forth in 2006 — while nine Labour MPs have died. This obviously includes the murdered Jo Cox, but it does not include Marsha Singh, who resigned his seat in 2012 due to ill-health four months before his death. The difference in death rates can partly be explained by the fact that there are more elderly Labour MPs. In the 2017 parliament there are 12 MPs on the Labour benches born before 1945, three of whom are over 80, and only five on the Conservative side, none of whom are over 80. It is also explained by the fact that the professional middle classes — from whom most Tory MPs are still drawn — have a more rapidly rising life expectancy than do less well-off groups. By-elections can, of course, be triggered by other factors, but with such a small majority the Tory whips will be doing their very best to avoid them. Don’t expect any sitting Conservative MPs to be offered peerages or to be made High Commissioner to Australia or Governor of Bermuda.

There is every reason to believe that the new government — with or without Theresa May at its head — can survive its full parliamentary term. There is only one thing which it seems at present could bring it down. While there has been much talk of there not being a majority for a “hard” Brexit in the Commons any more, if the government agreed to an arrangement with the EU which maintained free movement of people it is difficult to see a small group of hard-core Brexiteers, such as Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone, continuing to support it.
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