A Bit of Neither

Glen Newey

An electoral mandate, Theresa May keeps saying, will 'strengthen her hand' in the Brexit talks. The bigger her mandate, we're led to think, the stronger her hand. This is performative affirmation: the oftener it's said, the truer it becomes. Or does it? On election night, will the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, be nervously eyeing the returns from Billericay, poised to fold if it clocks up a Tory swing? It seems unlikely.

Suppose, as seems likely, that May bags a majority of more than 100. A few swivel-eyed Brexiter Tories, such as John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith, whose constituencies voted Remain, may lose their seats. But in the current fast-tracked process of candidate selection, new MPs are likely to come from the ranks of those who intone the new creed of bigger, cleaner, harder. Beleaguered Europhiles such as Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry hang on, but the drunks, once a few oddballs in the snug, have taken over the boozer and, now the house isn’t tied to Brussels, promise free beer for all.

And yet, there's a Remainer-consoling idea that May has gone to the country so that she'll have a bigger majority to secure parliamentary approval of the Brexit deal when it yields more to Brussels than her backbench zealots would like on such matters as the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the divorce bill. It’s quite possible that May had no thoughts at all about this. But even if she did, it's already come unstuck, as she finds herself having to be seen not to kowtow to Johnny Eurocrat. The row over last week's dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker has dragged May into full Britannia pose, as her statement from Downing Street after getting the dissolution from the queen showed – no deal's better than a bad deal, strong 'n' stable, rhubarb rhubarb. It's all a hostage not to fortune, but to predictable political fact. If May's hand is indeed strengthened, it will be her right hand.

Labour continues to resemble a driverless car. It's mildly impressive that it keeps going at all, but you wouldn't want to be in there. And when someone – Diane Abbott, say – does take the wheel, it's a Grand Theft Auto mega-shunt. Jeremy Corbyn's absence fills the cockpit. Maybe he's decided to take a back seat after failing to call May's bluff by having Labour abstain on the Commons vote to dissolve Parliament, and tabling a no-confidence motion – which would have left May needing her own MPs to back it to give her an election. Maybe most Labour MPs – as in studies which show that more than 90 per cent of academics rate themselves as above average teachers – think they'll somehow be spared. Or they don't, but see the election as a suicide-bombing sortie against Corbyn.

When its manifesto launches next week, it looks, from what Keir Starmer said last Tuesday, as if Labour will go Brexit-lite, with a definite 'maybe' on customs union to make themselves look different from the Tories. The number of votes this is likely to add is somewhere in the region of zero, even before taking account of how many they are likely to lose. Labour could try to make a 'Lexit' case to stop its pro-Leave supporters splitting to the Tories (a prime aim of May's election strategy); or try to oppose a hard Brexit in the hope of stopping its pro-Remain voters splitting to the Lib Dems. As it is, Labour's plan seems to be to do a bit of neither.

There's another five weeks of this. Let's all have another drink.


  • 5 May 2017 at 7:08pm
    Stu Bry says:
    Why assume Brexit is the only issue that matters?

    Disabled people are still being persecuted. There are crises in the NHS and social care. The Tories have made it clear regressive tax rises are coming. The Academy School system has been shown to be an expensive sham. Minimum wage jobs are on the increase and job security and terms and conditions are getting worse.

    It may be hard to believe but to millions of people these issues are more vital than Brexit.

    • 5 May 2017 at 7:30pm
      kadinsky says: @ Stu Bry
      Absolutely. That's why the austerity-loving Lib Dems have been flatlining in national polling for ten months, despite loudly representing themselves as the party of 'the 48%'..

    • 5 May 2017 at 8:06pm
      Glen Newey says: @ Stu Bry
      I'm sure 'milions of people' do think that, but so what? Many more millions regard Brexit as of overriding importance, rightly or otherwise. See e.g. yesterday's YouGov poll,

      which indicates that nearly two thirds of people put Brexit among the top three election issues (next down is Health, on 45 per cent). Today's local election results suggest Labour is struggling to get traction even in polls that have nothing directly to do with Brexit.

      On the Lib Dems and the mythic 48 per cent, see my remarks on folk psephology a couple of posts back. Polls suggest that over half of those who voted Remain now think Britain should get on with Brexit. Admittedly, the Dems labour with the additional handicaps of the tuition fees sell-out which many still remember, and a leader with the gravitas of a finger puppet.

    • 5 May 2017 at 8:14pm
      simonpawley says: @ Stu Bry
      All true, which is why it's so dismaying that Labour have yet to come up with serious, detailed policy alternatives. NHS -- they've said they will review plans for hospital closures, but have not put forward a serious plan to solve the big problem of social care. Schools -- there was a lot of noise about the plan for free primary school meals (quite a good idea), but on the huge issue of the government's disastrous 'National Funding Formula' plan and the big issue of the shortage of teachers, we await any real detail. Law & order -- what disappointed me about the promise of 10,000 more bobbies on the beat was not Diane Abbott's 'brain fade', but the silence from Labour on the major crisis in this area -- overcrowding of prisons to the point that it is really dangerous not only for prisoners but also for guards. Even on employment, while a commitment to raise the minimum wage is welcome, it does not really address the underlying issues about the way the economy and employment are changing.

      To some extent, of course, Labour have been caught short by a snap general election that few saw coming. And the leadership have been distracted from co-ordinating real policy work by incessant undermining by 'their own' side, the scale of which can hardly be overestimated (the day the election was called, Radio 4 news reported one anonymous former Labour front-bencher saying they relished the prospect of a heavy defeat bringing the end of 'the Corbyn experiment'). But whatever the reasons, it has failed to articulate detailed plans to address the major issues, which is especially disappointing given that, as you suggest, Tory policy in all these areas (and more) is such an unmitigated shambles. Of course I still want the Tories out, but under the circumstances, the realistic aim is to limit as far as possible the size of their majority.

    • 6 May 2017 at 10:15am
      whisperit says: @ simonpawley
      Good points, all. For me, the decision of the Labour Party to collude with the narrative of the hard Brexiteers and to interpret the referendum outcome as a unequivocal imperative to trigger Article 50 was a grave mistake.

      Many on the Left of the LP argued in favour of this as the necessary acknowledgement of the democratic will. What they failed to appreciate was that there were plenty of reasons to put forward an alternative narrative - that the "exit" vote should not over-ride other democratic and social/political priorities and that it was essential first to secure protection for both the 48% and for those sections of the population most vulnerable to the impact of a precipitate exit. But this was dismissed; no alternative vision was advanced, and the result is that the forthcoming election is framed exactly as the hard Right wish it - as a test of patriotism; jingoistic defiance in the face of untrustworthy Johnny Foreigner.

      The local election results in Wales, at least, offer just a sliver of hope. Despite omninous predictions that the Valleys would turn Blue, Plaid's vote held up (they gained 30-odd seats), showing that a decidedly radical, leftist, programme is not necessarily the electoral poison that we are being told it is. Tony Benn used to argue the same point, of course, in somewhat different circumstances. His repeated failures showed that the LP is constitutionally incapable of the kind of alliance building that could make this a reality.

    • 6 May 2017 at 3:30pm
      kadinsky says: @ Glen Newey
      The Lib Dems' sell out of their 2010 voters wasn't confined to the issue of tuition fees. Far more significant was their enabling of the Tories in forcing the country's poorest and most vulnerable people to atone for the sins of the bankers; flogging off the royal mail on the cheap to vultures (while keeping the taxpayer liable for postal workers' pensions), etc, etc. The public saw the Lib Dems' true nature between 2010-2015, something that can't now be re-hidden by their ardent support for the EU.

    • 6 May 2017 at 7:36pm
      streetsj says: @ whisperit
      I think you need to be careful on interpreting local results. I think the Wales vote in the general election might be bluer because of Brexit.

    • 7 May 2017 at 8:18am
      Stu Bry says: @ Glen Newey
      Well Labour have promised not to raise VAT,NI or income tax for people earning less than £80,000 a year.

      Hopefully the public can break out of the media's Brexit fixation and start considering their own finances and services.

    • 7 May 2017 at 3:03pm
      whisperit says: @ streetsj
      As I wrote previously, I think there's a kind of crisis of alienation. In the Valleys, the shift was not so much from one set of "big picture" politics to another, but from faceless paternalism to localism. Because there is no organisation more paternalistic than the Labour party of the Welsh Valleys, there is a kind of inevitability about a blue-ish turn. But where Labour lost seats, it was mostly to people who were well known in their communities; Leanne Wood of Plaid has such a big personal following because she works her socks off in the Rhondda and is a proper "Valleys girl".

  • 6 May 2017 at 1:32pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Have another drink? But of what? Farage's pint of beer already costs £4-5 when a pint of bitter should be no more than £2. [Britain is an expensive place to live.]

    Brexit will see wine prices soar. In fact, it's only our connections with South Africa and Australia that allow us the transfusions of robust reds that we need. [Brexit will cost us an arm and a leg.]

    Cider strips out and does not nourish, like that critical-theory lingo that gives us "narrative" and "discourse". [Pub closures have led to the decline of English.]

    The result is Britain with less and less Britain in it to enjoy and export.

  • 6 May 2017 at 7:54pm
    streetsj says:
    I agree with very little of what Glen writes but I go along with most of this. The poor thinking at the top of Labour was exemplified by the kowtowing to the motion calling for an election. As Glen says they could have said we're happy to support a motion of no confidence but otherwise we don't agree, we're sticking by the law, our election plans are focused on 2020 etc etc.
    I don't really agree with the Brexit-lite stuff. We voted to leave: the hard/soft thing is nonsense really. There was some confusion during the referendum campaign about "access to the single market" but it was never going to be possible to remain a member of the single market and leave the EU. Of course we will have "access" it's just on what terms. The other confusion is over free trade. The single market is not about free trade it is about restricting trade in all sorts of ways.

    I heard a discussion on R4 the other day about the NHS with all major parties represented. Cutting through the partisan stuff there was actually no difference between any of them. All agree it needs more money, the amount varies, but in the end it is current expenditure so needs to be paid out of current income. So the issue remains not the NHS but where the money comes from.
    It's simply not true to say the coalition and the short Con government have taken the brunt of it. In income terms the bottom decile/quartile has fared the best.

    If you still really believe that a radical leftist programme is a vote winner, good luck to you. And start saving for your next deposit.

    • 7 May 2017 at 7:34pm
      Stu Bry says: @ streetsj
      Clearly the Health and Social Care Bill 2012 passed you by.

      "In income terms the bottom decile/quartile has fared the best." Any evidence for this?

    • 8 May 2017 at 8:50am
      streetsj says: @ Stu Bry
      Have a look at this on blog - it's short. The data comes from HMRC.

    • 8 May 2017 at 8:53am
      streetsj says: @ streetsj
      left out "my" - that's my rather inadequate blog.

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