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An epic study of GE2017: The like of which we’ve never seen before

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn - Credit: Getty Images

Suddenly he is everyone’s favourite Uncle Jeremy – a man on the threshhold of power. Next time he may be unlucky enough to win

As the wise old boy selling coffee at our local market put it a couple of days after the general election: ‘First we made a little mistake, then a bigger one. Then came a disaster, followed by a bigger one. Next time it will be a catastrophe.’ The devastating West London tower block fire is one sort of bleak catastrophe, but other serious ones lurk on the horizon.

Take your pick as to the exact sequence of avoidable errors that has led us to the brink of Brexit without a stable – we’ll skip the ‘strong’ bit for a while – government, and without an EU negotiating strategy worthy of the name either. But the coffee-selling sage’s escalating scale of mistakes is painfully visible. What a motorway pile-up.

Was David Cameron’s half-baked referendum pledge the fatal first brick dislodged from the wall? Or Jeremy Corbyn’s subversion of the Remain campaign – so clear since his energetic election performance? Was the disaster Cameron’s instant resignation, the one that led to Theresa May’s untested coronation? Or was it her incompetent bid for a ‘Me’ mandate on April 18? Or was the real game-changer for us all Donald Trump’s White House win, opening social media floodgates to populist mendacity on an unprecedented scale and destabilisation of the global order?

History will decide, unless that dangerous subject is banned or proves unaffordable in the brave new world ahead. Meanwhile May picks her way through the rubble of the Tory majority government she demolished. ‘I got us into this mess, I’m going to get us out of it,’ she told backbench MPs on Monday night. Oh really? Few think so, not even the Daily Mail and Sun, frantically propping her up for want of a better idea. ‘No prime minister is better than a bad prime minister,’ is the new version of a nihilistic slogan that never works.

All the same, there was a time when stirring words from our rookie PM might have resonated in the shires and suburbs. But that was weeks ago. Robert Browning’s reproachful words from The Lost Leader (1845), his poem about the ageing William Wordsworth’s desertion of the progressive cause, surface periodically in our public life. ‘Never glad confident morning again’ for Theresa May.

So, what happens now? The ‘dead woman walking’ (copyright an ungallant George Osborne) may continue to walk longer than most people expect, longer than she has a right to after she and her unlamented coterie made so many unforced errors. Only last until the autumn, say some. Perhaps, but no one really wants another election, not voters, not the parties, badly bruised all of them. Not even Jeremy Corbyn unless he’s on happy pills, he might not be so lucky next time – Labour might win, though probably not unless the Tories put up Somerset squire, ‘Jake’ Rees-Mogg, as leader.

Obviously the Conservative Party will never let May near an election campaign outside Maidenhead again (even there her vote went down). The only visible alternative leader capable of changing the political weather is Boris Johnson. David Davis? Don’t think so. Phil Hammond? He’s not box office, is he. Amber Rudd? A bit tentative. The traffic light clue is in the name. But the foreign secretary – he’s really more of a work experience trainee – is even more tarnished than May by the shabby ineptitude of the last year. A Marmite politician, both admired and despised, he is much diminished either way.

Nor should the ‘Anyone but Boris’ text allegedly sent from Berlin be lightly dismissed either. Across the Channel Johnson is widely loathed as the pioneer of fake Euro-news in his youthful Brussels reporting for the Telegraph: No love lost there for Bent Bananas Boris. It ain’t going to happen, he’s not Churchill. Watch out for A.N. Other.

Assuming Chancellor Angela Merkel survives her date with the voters in September – nothing is taken for granted any more – London will need German goodwill to fashion a viable Brexit settlement. Sunday’s parliamentary election success is rapidly giving President Emmanuel Macron what may prove dangerously dictatorial power over the French people and Paris is likely to be less obliging. ‘You can still reverse Brexit,’ he told May on Tuesday. Thanks Manny, but we’re going ahead with it in some form or another. Even Ken Clarke agrees.

In the nationalist mood deepening across Europe – Finns and Catalans stirring this week – how many friends does Britain still have? One well-connected pal who has been in EU capitals this month reports that – uniformly – our soon-to-divorce partners regard our elected ministerial leaders as pretty clueless, hopelessly unprepared and with no agreed policy goals for Brexit. ‘The only Brits worth talking to are the senior officials.’ In an era of broken-backed politics civil servants come into their own. In one of angry populism they do so at some risk. But Michel Barnier is signalling impatience to get started with the divorce. After all, triggering the Article 50 alarm clock was our idea. His bags have long been packed for a start on Monday, June 19. But is anybody there?

In this context the EU 27 cannot have been other than baffled to find May embroiled in the finer points of gay marriage and abortion rights as she set about cobbling together a working majority. Legally, economically, politically, isn’t the Brexit juggernaut enough to worry about as it drives towards Nigel (‘there is no cliff’) Lawson’s cliff? If we go over it, very soon only Brexit billionaires will be able to afford marriage – straight or gay.

Yet Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson chose to make gay nuptials Friday’s signature tune because May was playing footsie with Arlene Foster’s socially regressive Democratic Unionists. It’s true that Davidson’s flair and 13 McSeats saved May’s Westminster bacon as surely as Nicola Sturgeon cooked Ed Miliband’s in 2015. She is entitled to strong personal views on same-sex marriage (she is about to embark upon one). But it was surely a mistake to mix the personal with the political when tempted to flex the Scottish Tories newly-acquired muscles. This week Davidson more sensibly focussed on North Sea fishing rights.

Across the Irish Sea the DUP has enough troubles of its own at home without wanting to prod the hornet’s nest of divisive social policy. It didn’t list gay marriage or abortion among its priorities for a deal with May. Why should it when Northern Ireland’s economy is always so vulnerable, when the peace process was already under pressure and the Brexit border issue is now so potent? Why, when the Stormont executive is beached and Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s ever-opportunist leader, is seizing passing opportunity to demand another border poll – against the evidence of the polling data? Even understated Sir John Major, who doesn’t speak out without good reason, shares Adams’ concern the UK government’s commitment to ‘impartiality’ in supervising the Good Friday Agreement (an international treaty) is at risk in a DUP deal.

As much as that short supply of vellum parchment for the Queen’s Speech, it all smacks of La-La-Land politics, of escapism and a desire to discuss any distraction but the Brexit juggernaut. The DUP – ‘Nigel Dodd and the Diddymen’ as the gag goes – is guilty of many sins (they’re very keen on sin), but gay-bashing was not one of them. A soft enough Brexit to protect farm exports and a viable EU land border with the Irish Republic is their priority and rightly so. Despite blithe talk about electronically logged exports it will be hard to achieve outside the single market and customs union. They are also keen to further weaken the UK Treasury’s commitment to Osborne ‘austerity’ even more than Hammond had already signalled.

My hunch is that a new mainland generation will be educated in the parochial ways of Ireland’s six north-east counties and that metropolitan outrage will subside. Given his own ambiguous record on the province’s 30-year Troubles Jeremy Corbyn would be wise not to press that particular hot button very hard. Incidentally, Dublin’s Fine Gael government is also propped up by a ‘confidence and supply’ deal with arch-foes, Fianna Fail. Not too much scope for outrage there either. Celtic sub-plots are now part of the Westminster drama – as they often have been for 200 years.

What if May falters over the Queen’s Speech or her ‘regressive alliance’ with the DUP blows up over sectarian Orange parades or similar silliness? What if the much-touted ‘progressive alliance’ brings her down and Corbyn gets called to Buck House? Having been badly wrong about the scale of Corbyn’s appeal to younger voters, those under 45, not just 25 – I apologised last week for the error, but not for my underlying scepticism – I ought to be hesitate before saying it won’t happen. But it won’t. In for a penny, in for a pound, eh.

The fact is that May would not have dared stage her reckless election, justified to head off the fantasy of Brexit ‘saboteur’ MPs and peers, if she had faced a Labour leader more competent and electable than Corbyn, 20% behind her in the polls in April. So bad in turn was both her campaign and her personal lack of retail skills that she nearly pulled defeat from the jaws of a landslide. As for Camp Corbyn, so confident was it of safely losing that it put together a cynical manifesto offer so politically and economically irresponsible that it can only be interpreted as a means of doing well enough to protect its grip on the Labour machine from so-called ‘Blairite’ retaliation. May and Corbyn played chicken and clipped each other’s wing mirror.

I accept that Corbyn weathered the wall of media abuse and had a good campaign, not least because he moderated cherished views (‘principles’ as his admirers call them), long-held but lightly-held apparently, some of them. He also learned to smile, not scowl at reporters and on television sofas. That’s all progress towards the centre ground. Excellent. If only he had done half as much for Remain. Labour will not split – we never thought it would repeat that error. It now makes sense that many or most Labour ‘moderates’ (some of them very immoderate moderates) should bury their doubts and fears, make their peace with the leader they are now stuck with until he goes into a care home. If Corbyn wisely ignores Len McCluskey’s ‘Crush the Labour Saboteurs’ advice – is he Unite’s Paul Dacre ? – some ‘rebels’ may be offered shadow cabinet places and should accept them. In politics you have to play the hand the voters deal you. As the old joke goes, ‘the people have spoken – the bastards’.

I also read learned professors telling us all that the election exploded two myths; one is the power of mainstream media (always a myth, Murdoch backs winners, he doesn’t make them); the other the myth of winning in the centre ground. Side by side I read liberal and left wing columnists, either rejoicing at Corbyn’s vindication or repenting their own scepticism or scorn. Suddenly he is everyone’s favourite Uncle Jeremy, a man on the threshold of power. Among former colleagues and friends at Guardian HQ on Friday morning I am told the mood was one of delighted excitement, as if Labour had won. It hadn’t.

Being merely an elderly hack with no political ambitions, I did not break open the prosecco and stand my ground. Yes, the Camp Corbyn manifesto took a kicking, as did the leader, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, who turns out to share a late diabetes diagnosis with Theresa May, type 2 in Abbott’s case, type 1 in May’s. But no one expected them to win, they benefitted from a Perfect Storm in which no one expected the Tories to perform so badly either. Do perfect storms repeat themselves in politics? Rarely. Labour has put itself on an election footing again – campaigning is the leader’s lifetime forte – when it should be concentrating on policy formation. There is so much a seriously radical party could tackle. Next time will be harder.

So voting tactically against May’s distasteful election option or against excessive austerity – voting for remission of tuition fees, a blatant bung disguised as idealism in the case of first-time student voters – may have worked once. It is unlikely to work so well again, when Corbynite Labour will have to put away the Christmas Tree and devise an economic policy which better stands up to IFS scrutiny – not to mention the markets’ propensity to panic and over-react. The British economy and public finances are very fragile. Voters may want Labour-ish measures, but they may also want them carried out by moderate Tory politicians. We have reached Peak Corbyn, says me, though the social media chorus tells me I am an outdated old fart. We will see. Syriza anyone? In Greece Syriza was unlucky enough to win.

Acutely strained though it is, much more likely than a second 2017 election – double elections in 1910 and 1974 produced near identical results – is that the system will creak but adapt to the emerging ‘confidence and supply’ arrangements. DUP MPs will turn up to vote with May on big votes, even on Mondays and Thursdays, especially financial ones. Despite rumours that they are poised to abandon their historic ‘no show’ practice Sinn Fein’s No Show Seven probably won’t. In return potholes will be filled more speedily in Derry than in Dundee or Devon, possibly with gold. As Sir John Major noted on Radio 4, this may annoy Dundee and Devon. When PM (1990-97), Sir John himself lived similarly from hand to mouth in the Commons for several years – tormented by his fratricidal Euro ‘bastards’ wing.

Older voters and younger ones who have seen This House, James Graham’s excellent touring play about Jim Callaghan’s minority Labour government (1977-79), have seen it before and know how it works: very cautiously. As Fleet Street has been reporting, gleefully or with dismay, much of May’s ill-fated manifesto will soon be floating down past the Thames Barrier: grammar schools, ‘dementia tax’ and all. If Callaghan did deals and Gordon Brown tried to do so again in 2010, Labour can hardly complain when May plays the Orange card too. Again, my critics tell me: ‘times have changed, Mike.’ They’re right, but not quite as they think. Britain’s economic position is even more vulnerable than in the 1970s before China woke from its long sleep. Awkward facts like that will trump parochial local politics.

But what does it all mean for Brexit? William Hague’s call for cross-party consultation and a wider commission to decide how best to proceed was a year too late, as M Barnier could explain. It was quickly joined by Sir John and (in a rare intervention) David Cameron, all three ex-Tory leaders whose appeasement of their head-banging wing contributed to the Brexit crisis.

Statesman Corbyn signals willingness to explore options, though his ambiguity on Brexit does not help. His past claims to be ‘working for peace’ in global trouble spots were famously one-sided. Jez 2.0 may have to learn to talk to people he doesn’t like. Talking to Blairites will be a start. May’s ‘winner-take-all’ approach has lost.

No wonder angry conspiracy theorists in Fleet Street and UKIP (Nigel’s back!) were quick to protest that ex-Remainers’ power in cabinet has been strengthened, not least by mild-mannered Damian Green’s promotion to be May’s No 2 and defeated MP Gavin Barwell’s promotion to chief of staff. Are they tough enough to steer the ship of state? May’s ousted Praetorian Guards, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, thought they were, but steered it on to the rocks. David Davis, Brexit’s increasingly pragmatic negotiator, has lost key DEXU ministers, sacked or (clever George Bridges) resigned. He is weakened and rumoured to be reaching out to Labour. That might work, he’s a council house boy, a Yorkshire MP with an attractive libertarian streak. But more than ever, events are now running the show. The London tower block disaster is one such event, casting a dreadful, distracting shadow.

Rival analyses of Thursday’s voting suggest that 85% of voters backed parties committed to respecting the Brexit verdict. But 53% of votes – that’s 1% more than June 23rd’s 52% – went to parties favouring a form of Soft Brexit, Labour, all the nationalists except the DUP, Greens and Lib Dems. Some 315 of the 650 MPs elected take that position. UKIP got 1.8% and no MPs. To make meaningful progress with the space thus created, Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer would have to get round the resistance of McDonnell, who this week restated his commitment to leaving the single market. Is the donnish lawyer tough enough to see off the hard man? Are pro-Remain Tories who backed May for leader now tough enough to call in the debt and insist – as Hammond seems to be doing – that economics take priority over immigration in the settlement. Where does the Vince Cable, clever but egotistical, fit into the mix? He’s a proper economist.

The perils are obvious and everywhere. Yet the shades of Enoch Powell and Tony Benn, enemies of the European project and champions of parliamentary sovereignty, must surely rejoice. The election has placed the executive branch of government at the mercy of the elected legislature. What will it do with its power?

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