Chou en-Lai is supposed to have said that his assessment of the French Revolution was “It is too early to tell.” Sadly, this appears to have been a misunderstanding, but the agreeably placid sentiment was echoed by Jacob Rees-Mogg this week. Asked if he’d resign if Brexit turned out badly, he said it might take 50 years before the full impact was apparent.
Well, that solves the Rees-Mogg resignation issue, but more generally the public seem unlikely to want to ponder the matter until 2069. Let’s assume that the current doomsayers are wrong. That after the customary crises and extended deadline and midnight negotiations, Mrs May and the Council of Minister stumble out with a deal. Fudged, no doubt, with long-term implications unclear, perhaps, but A Deal. Personally, I think it’s likely.
What happens to British politics then? Will the public want to chew over the details for the following years? Surely not – even professional politicians are mostly fed up with it, and they’re professionally interested. Instead, we should expect a powerful “Now get on with everything else” sentiment. The economy! The NHS! Crime! Schools! The environment! HS2! Heathrow!
What will that do to political preferences? After World War 2, Labour won a sweeping majority on the slogan “Now win the peace”, and it will be that kind of sentiment that most people will want. In meeting that demand, the Conservatives will have two advantages. First, they own Brexit, and any kind of deal will be presented as a success. What more natural than to ask them to carry on? Second, the splits currently dogging the party will presumably abate.
Except that there are two problems as well. First, a great many Conservatives at all levels seem poised to eject May as soon as she succeeds. We all know the reasons, but doing that will largely destroy the success story – if it was such a great success, why are you getting rid of her, hmm? Second, people are weary of the Government; indeed, Ministers often give the appearance of being weary of it themselves. All the creative energy is going into fixing Brexit – the question “Then what?” is hardly being addressed, let alone answered.
What about Labour? Well, inexplicably they seem to have decided that this is a good moment to debate precisely what attitudes to Middle Eastern affairs are permissible. However, at some point that will be put to bed. More promisingly, the party is drawing up plans for the first year government in case a snap election is called. Yes, actually thinking about what to do next. Aided by near-agnosticism about Brexit, the leadership is not really preoccupied with it, no matter how much we think they should be.
The 2017 programme was pretty popular and doesn’t need huge adjustment, but it needs to be updated; more importantly, we need to see some priorities, so people have a clear idea of what they can look forward to early on. The most zealous socialist doesn’t think that nationalising water needs to be done instantly: the immediate actions need to focus on economic stabilisation, the NHS and some clear moves away from austerity.
In principle, the traditional dwindling of support for sitting governments should see Labour edge home. The scare campaign against Corbyn will be tried again but will deliver diminishing returns: people get that he’s a dogged socialist who doesn’t change his views often, but on the whole they’re up for a bit of socialism for a change, and the charge that he might be held back by having to compromise with the LibDems and SNP is not necessarily seen as a drawback.
Nonetheless, it’s important that the base of the next Government is seen to be broader than Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott: people like Ashworth (health), Hayman (environment) and Rayner (education) need to be put onto Question Time and Today at every opportunity.
Is it then a done deal? No way. There is nothing about British politics that’s guaranteed at present. But we’re probably at Advantage Labour, because being “The party that isn’t just about Europe” is about to become an asset.
Nick was Labour MP for Broxtowe from 1997 to 2010