Back to the 1990s? Maybe

Back to the 1990s? Maybe

Friday might have been the day the Tories became ungovernable again

Remakes are rarely as good as the originals. For all the attempts to update the story, they’re generally hamstrung by the essential unoriginality of it. Not that that stops the recycling: the public might not take them to their hearts but they’ll pay their money all the same.

We might seem to be living through a remake now. A Tory prime minister with no majority, reliant on the goodwill of Unionists while Northern Ireland’s politics goes into a freeze; a government divided into intermittently warring factions, each angling to position for the inevitable leadership election whenever it should come; Europe dominating and dividing the Conservatives’ attention; a succession of rather tawdry sex scandals circling the government. For those of a certain age it all feels a bit Back to the Nineties. All we need now are curtains haircuts, Britpop and Jim Davidson. Or perhaps not.

Actually, despite those close parallels, there are big differences too. Firstly, and most obviously, while the Tories are led by a decent but weak leader, Labour is not led by a young, charismatic leader aiming squarely at Tory marginals. Blair, in the mid-90s, made a deliberate play to attract Conservative voters; he made Labour safe again to middle England.

Corbyn, by contrast, while also radiating a certain sort of charisma, is following precisely the opposite path. The disenchanted left that Blair took for granted forms Corbyn’s highly motivated core vote. The centre, bitterly fought over twenty years ago, lies abandoned.

This has had a curious effect. Far from leaving a vacuum for the other parties to fill, third parties haven’t been weaker for decades. That’s no doubt because to many voters, one side represents such a threat that the only option is to back the other, despite severe misgivings – and rarely can misgivings have been more severe than this week.

Also, this is Expenses rather than Back to Basics: Labour and the Lib Dems are implicated too. The scandals in the 1990s hit the government overwhelmingly hard. Partly, that’s because governments always attract more attention because the stakes are higher there; there’s real rather than shadow office to be gained and lost. But mainly it was the nature of the scandals themselves. Today, by contrast, Labour is also suspending MPs and activists, with some very serious allegations in and amongst. The Lib Dems too have new questions to answer about their handling of Lord Rennard.

The sexual impropriety is, however, only half the story.

    The true development today, politically, is the revelation of just how bitter the Fallon-Leadsom spat was. When cabinet ministers go public on getting each other sacked, even if by proxy or off the record, the government rapidly becomes dysfunctional.

This may, perhaps, be a one-off – though the fact that Leadsom is still there will make other ministers extremely wary of how they deal with her. On the other hand, it might have marked the decisive shift from party discipline to personal or factional self-protection. If so, the Tories will lose, and will deserve to lose, the next election.

David Herdson

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