The structural weaknesses of May’s government will leave its impression on the public
Only a fool would try to predict how this parliament will play out after all the extraordinary political upheavals and upsets this decade so far. So here goes.
The central fact in British politics right now is that Jeremy Corbyn is unchallengeable. He will serve through to the next election (and perhaps beyond), unless he chooses to stand aside before it, of his own volition.
He and his supporters are rightly confident in the position, having been castigated by the mainstream before the election as incapable, only to then jump about 15% in the polls during the election campaign and, with 12.9m votes, return the second-highest Labour total in the last 50 years. They will feel completely vindicated in their policies, their methods and their personnel, all of which will continue.
By the same process, those who were criticising Corbyn before the campaign have not only gone quiet or publicly recanted – that was almost inevitable after such a result – but the memory of the 2017 campaign will seriously inhibit future challenges to Corbyn if and when things go wrong again in the future. That inhibition will come partly from MPs, who’ll be telling themselves that ‘it’ll come right again when it matters’, but also from key swing party members in any potential future election, who would likewise now need much more convincing to dump him – and they weren’t easily persuadable in the first place.
But things will go wrong. For all that he was effective hailing populist and expensive policies on campaign stages, when the tiresome business of day-to-day Westminster politics resumes, he’ll still be as bad at it because he’ll still have no interest in it. Indeed, having ‘proven’ the effectiveness of social media and mass rallies, he may have less time for the Westminster Bubble than ever.
So Corbyn is around as long as he wants. Even if Labour finds itself in government – not impossible with by-elections or a DUP strop (the DUP might be nominally deeply hostile to Corbyn but they’re also deeply attracted to cash for Northern Ireland, and they’re ideologically flexible enough to power-share with Sinn Fein) – and Corbyn flounders out of his depth, he will still be revered as only the fifth man in Labour’s history to lead them into government, and two of those five don’t count any more.
Around that fact, everything else revolves. The Tories know, as Labour critics of Corbyn know, that the Labour leader has extraordinary weaknesses as well as formidable strengths. It may be exceptionally rare for a government, once it has started to lose seats from one general election to the next, to start gaining them again but the belief will be that with the right campaign and right leader, it can be done next time.
That ought to mean that May’s days are numbered, however, despite the Tory record of knifing leaders, that won’t necessarily happen. Hers may be something of a zombie government, plodding forward step by step without any guiding plan, but so was John Major’s and that lasted the full five years. Indeed, it did so with no change of leader mainly because there was no alternative who could both unite the party and effectively take the fight to Blair. On the other hand, there were any number of times when it came close to falling. So now. The Queen’s Speech might have been shorn of its more controversial elements but there’s enough left in – most obviously the Brexit bills – to provide scope for rebellion, conflict and defeat. And that’s without the regular set-pieces such as the budget, or events such as fate might decide. But the need to deliver a decent Brexit to keep all the Leave voters on board means that it’ll be difficult to justify taking another two months out to elect a new leader. If the talks collapse or end with a duff deal, that navel-gazing will be blamed.
All of which is likely to give the impression of a government which is not in control of events (not least because given the parliamentary maths and the need to gain agreement with many other countries in a short time, it can’t be in control of events). And the public doesn’t like that; it doesn’t breed confidence.
Can that dynamic be changed? I don’t think so: there are too many constraints inhibiting a major change of course. All of which leads me to a similar conclusion to Alastair yesterday: the 4/1 available on Jeremy Corbyn as next PM (Paddy Power) is generous.