AS British Conservative Party officials stare transfixed at a car crash of a campaign whose twists and turns would have exceeded the wildest fantasies of a JG Ballard novel, one of the corpses lying at their feet is their reputation as “the natural party of government.”
That is no more. It is dead. Killed by self-inflicted wounds and lying under a wreath with the single word “hubris” emblazoned large upon it.
There are many things in life that it is better not to do. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery always put “invading Russia” at the top of his list. Referendum aficionado David Cameron might add: “Don’t ask a question to which you don’t know the answer.” The Tories must now repeat every day: “Don’t call an election you don’t need.”
In losing her majority, and being forced to rely on the DUP, Ms May has dealt herself a very bad hand and played it unintelligently
This 38th general election since the Great Reform Act of 1867 was not necessary. The government had a working Commons majority of 17 which, even with a few by-election losses, would have been sufficient to cover the Brexit negotiation period and get the related legislation passed by 2020.
Her reasoning — that Parliament was divided on the issue — did not stand examination. Of course Parliament was divided; China and North Korea have the planet’s only completely undivided parliaments.
She had a majority to get legislation through the Commons, and obstruction in the House of Lords could have been overcome by enacting the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, which established the supremacy of the Commons (subject, of course, to the 1972 European Communities Act!).
Here’s a little history that puts Ms May’s snap election decision on April 18 — and the reasons she gave for it — into striking context: The second Commons reading in 1972 on the legislation that took Britain into what was then the European Economic Community was passed, after 300 hours of debate, by a majority of a mere eight — 309 against 301. Hardly an undivided parliament, hardly a majority that would have frightened Brussels, Paris and, Bonn, at that time the capital of West Germany.
Secondly, having set up Brexit as the one and only election question, regaining office with no overall majority and a grace and favour arrangement, raises profound doubts about Ms May’s judgement and credibility in leading the negotiations that, she argued, could be entrusted only to her.
In her inaugural speech as prime minister last July, Ms May spoke of her concern for those families who were “just about managing.” Now she has joined them based on a cobbled-together deal with the DUP in the North where, last year, she despatched her former home office acolyte, James Brokenshire, as secretary of state.
If she retains office as prime minister for a short while it is only because the Tory party will be in no mood for another leadership election. Additionally there’s no sign of a viable challenger other than, perhaps, the Brexit secretary, David Davis, and he is already being fingered as the advisor responsible for urging Ms May to go for broke when she was 21 points ahead in the polls and Jeremy Corbyn could only find 40 of his Parliamentary colleagues to support him in a vote of confidence
The problem with one-issue elections is that they rarely remain so, and so it has been this time. Conservative high command should have known this. In 1974, Edward Heath asked: “Who governs Britain?” The answer from the electorate was: “You do. You’re not doing it very well. Goodbye.”
Ms May promised strength and stability (and, in full Power of Three mode, “enough is enough” and “Brexit means Brexit”), yet offered prolonged glimpses of indecision and carelessness. By the morning of the election, Rod Liddle, in a devastating critique in The Spectator, said: “Never have I ever seen a politician so comprehensively undone, unstitched, come apart, in such a short space of time as Theresa May.”
This was a leader who, on taking office and the Brexit brief, saw no need for an election until 2020. She changed her mind while walking n Wales. Her first budget and her first election manifesto — thrown together with more speed than thought — were followed swiftly by U-turns.
Everybody knows that there is a fast- approaching crisis in the costs of social welfare provision and care for the elderly and that this will not be confined to the UK. A solution has to be found. But shoehorning an asset-stripping solution into a package of electoral promises with little debate or consultation was a ticking bomb which didn’t take long to explode.
Then there was what former prime minister Harold MacMillan said scared him most in life: “Events, dear boy, events.”
Terrorist murders in Manchester and London allowed opposition parties to haul in police manpower and resources for the intelligence services as an issue, generating significant and difficult questions about Ms May’s six-year stewardship at the Home Office and even producing widespread debate about the difference between control orders (which has been used) and their replacement, Tpims (Terrorism Investigation and Prevention Measures) which weren’t. Ms May said “enough is enough” but there was no detail to explain why this was so, and no public belief that the terrorists would take notice. In the end, she looked like a cut — and run — politician
Her campaign highlighted what appeared to be a personality cult, with input from advisors but no sense of cabinet responsibility. One of the authors of the manifesto was Benedict Gummer, son of former party chairman and environment secretary John Selwyn Gummer. Ministers and senior backbenchers appear to have had little input. Yesterday, its architect was returning to private life after losing the Ipswich seat he had held for seven years.
There was scarcely any focus on the economic problems facing the UK. Ms May has said many times that only she has a plan for the EU negotiation, but she has given few clues as to what that plan might be. Within the Conservative Party, she and her election strategists have been criticised both for overdoing personal attacks on Labour’s leader, and for not going at him harder.
What she has done for Labour is to help it achieve a comeback which would have forced Lazarus to give a standing ovation, and to return the UK back to the mould of two-party politics. For now.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has enjoyed a much better campaign than anticipated. His slogan was superior. “For the many, not the few” chimed with a nation which has had its fill of austerity, rocketing house prices, corporate greed, price inflation, flat interest rates on savings, food banks, and health service rundown.
He has attracted large and enthusiastic crowds comprising the hard left and others either unaware or unconcerned that he has spent his entire career as an MP opposing anti-terror legislation. His cachet has been secured with young voters attracted by Labour’s promise to throw yet more borrowed money at education, health, and social services and to tax the rich. He has been hindered by a largely third-rate shadow cabinet and has chosen to do most of the heavy lifting himself. He has been as reticent as Ms May to talk about Europe.
What is certainly true is that if the Conservatives had faced one of the Labour heavyweights from the past — a Clem Atlee, or a Gaitskell, or a Wilson — they would have been annihilated. Another day of reckoning is coming. It is likely to be this autumn.