Britain’s Conservatives are in an extraordinarily deep mess. Their catastrophic their election failure was followed quickly by the Grenfell Tower tragedy, which to many showed the bankruptcy of Tory policy. A union representative at recent meeting I attended confidently predicted that Labour would be in power in six months. That looks implausible, but the Tories could limp on like John Major’s government after Black Tuesday in 1992, before it went down to the Tories’ worst ever defeat in 1997.
It’s a bit shocking to think back to last April, when Theresa May called the election. It looked like a stroke of genius. Labour had some of their worst ever poll ratings and looked hollowed out after their internal struggles. But it wasn’t just that. It also looked clever to go to the electorate then, because the next few years were going to be rough going for the government. Brexit was looking very messy, and the short term economic outlook looked dire – especially if the government stuck to the fiscal conservatism that has been their hallmark. Now the party has lost its parliamentary majority, tarnished its brand, and rescued Labour from oblivion. And prospects for Brexit and the economy look just as difficult as before – worse. I can only guess at the trauma Tory supporters must be feeling.
There has been some predictable lashing out. Tories cannot bear to give Labour’s leadership credit for anything, so they blame their own side for the calamity. Mrs May is regarded as a dire leader; the campaign is written off as the most dismal in history. And yet they won 43% of the vote, the highest since 1987, and their poll ratings were remarkably stable through the campaign. Still, many of the decisions taken by the Conservatives during the campaign look ill-advised in hindsight. A lot of the problem was that the calling of the election was so sudden. There was no time to put together the type of campaign infrastructure that was in place 2015. They lacked good quality campaign intelligence, and failed to see how the battleground was moving. The political environment, after Brexit and Corbyn, is radically different from that of 2015, and yet the Tory campaign theme – “strong and stable” versus “coalition of chaos” – was much the same. This points to a deeper weakness: the party lacks a strong army of volunteers to fight a ground campaign. So it badly needs the advantages that money and a long lead time can buy – and they need to identify the right constituencies and voters to target. It’s clear they were focusing their efforts on the wrong people time.
I have made a comparison before between Theresa May and John Major. Mr Major was a lacklustre leader, who experienced an initial honeymoon when he took over in 1990. He did not call a snap election, but pulled off a narrow but unexpected victory in 1992, after a dismal campaign. He had a bit of a second honeymoon, but it all came tumbling down on 16 September 1992, Black Tuesday, when Sterling was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, shattering Mr Major’s economic strategy. It made no difference that he kept going for over 4 years more with a pretty decent economic record – he and his party’s credibility was shot, and the country was only waiting for somebody to put them out of their misery.
Does the Grenfell Tower fire provide a similar, seminal moment, to follow the failed election itself? There are clear signs of government failure, and Mrs May’s slow reaction showed a massive lack of political judgment by her and her advisers. The official neglect that led to a tragedy on this scale goes back much longer than when Conservative austerity started in 2010, but many of the things Conservatives have been saying about cutting public services and regulation resonate badly.
But, like John Major, I suspect the government will be quite successful at limping on. Only Labour currently wants another election, and they do not have enough parliamentary muscle to force one, nor sufficient political skill to engineer one. Also Mrs May herself looks quite secure for now; each of her potential replacements brings problems with them. Personally I think that the Chancellor Philip Hammond would do a much better job, but he would be distrusted as a more open Europhile. If there had been a strong field of potential leaders, Mrs May would not have walked into her job so easily. Just as nobody could replace Mr Major.
But the Conservatives are vulnerable. Brexit makes the short-term economic prospects look weak – undermining their reputation for economic competence. The lower pound is squeezing what people have to spend; business investment is blighted by uncertainty. A good moment for higher public investment in infrastructure and public services? But that would require the import of a lot of foreign skilled workers (and no doubt quite a few unskilled ones) just as Brexit makes life uncertain for the most readily available people. It may or may not be fair to put a faltering economy down to Brexit (it may have been coming anyway), but it is hard for the government to blame anything else, when the most plausible alternative is their own incompetence. And public services, such as education and health (to say nothing of social housing) are becoming stretched to the point of being politically toxic.
But for the Conservatives to be beaten, it takes somebody to deliver the blow. In 1997 that was Tony Blair, who built up the most ruthlessly effective political machine Britain has ever seen. Labour are confident that the spirit of hope and optimism spelt out in their manifesto will convince enough extra voters to give them a try this time. They have plenty of enthusiastic young supporters to give them an army of foot soldiers. But they are very unlike Mr Blair’s Labour. Mr Blair moved Labour towards the Conservatives in policy terms, in a strategy that I have called “the same, only different”, and picked up many Tory voters. For Mr Corbyn’s party, their motivation comes from a visceral hatred of the Conservatives and all they stand for. Their policy programme is full of contradictions, not least on Brexit, and would wilt under close scrutiny. This time they succeeded because nobody thought they could win. I can’t believe they will be able to deliver a knock-out blow. Challenges built on populist anger can gain momentum (look at Donald Trump and Brexit), but they provoke opposition, and it is very hard for them to get enough votes to secure more than a narrow victory in a parliamentary election. And the electoral system does not favour Labour either.
The alternative is that a new political force is able to grow and deliver the blow, as Emmanuel Macron has in France, drawing support from both right and left. The Liberal Democrats hope to be that force, but at best they can only be part of it. This new force needs defections from both the big parties, and some people new to politics too. And there needs to be a leader. Is there anybody of the right stature around to lead it? Maybe somebody will emerge, as Tony Blair did. I can’t help thinking of David Miliband. Vince Cable, who looks likely to be the next Lib Dem leader, has a better chance than the current leader, Tim Farron, of drawing support across party lines.
But for that to happen, Labour will have to start falling apart. This is possible. The hard left looks is continuing its takeover of the party machinery. Mr Corbyn has made no gestures of reconciliation to his party’s centrists. But it will take more than driving out a few tainted centrists to break Labour’s momentum – something has to puncture the enthusiasm of Labour’s activist base, who now have a taste for successful campaigning. Perhaps only power will puncture Mr Corbyn’s bubble. Labour might be too weak to beat the Conservatives, even when they are vulnerable. But they may yet be too strong to allow anybody else to.
And that is the best hope for Conservatives. British politics is volatile. Their luck could yet turn.