Plenty of pundits and commentators with inside knowledge and access to detailed polling have already delivered their post-mortems of the collapse of the Tory vote (and those of us on the liberal economic right of the party would find little to disagree with Ryan Bourne). What follows, then, are just a handful of points, rather than a Lyotardian métarécit.
It wasn’t about Brexit
The two main parties were saying broadly similar things when it came to leaving the EU — no to the Single Market and Customs Union, yes to control of immigration, etc. The parties with radically different ‘offers’ (the Liberal Democrats and the SNP) saw a loss of vote share (of respectively 0.5% and 1.7%). The party that made it all about Brexit, viz. UKIP, saw an even larger tumble (10.8%). The British public, one suspects, have mostly accepted the reality of Brexit — a vote almost a year ago decided that — and more traditional election concerns have returned. Brexit is happening, in some shape or form; what interests people now is the question of what a post-Brexit Britain might look like.
If Brexit was an issue at all, then for all that Labour’s insistence that they would, somehow, achieve a ‘good deal’ may have been an unachievable aspiration, it still sounded more positive than the dogged Tory slogan of ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. It is clearly important to be seen to believe this. Cameron failed in his own ‘renegotiation’ because Brussels knew that he would not walk away. But as I am not a WTO Rules, cut-off-my-nose-to-spite-my-face head-banger, I don’t actually believe that ‘no deal’ would be good for Britain, even though I have campaigned to leave the EU since before Maastricht. We Leavers told people that a deal was do-able. It’s hardly surprising that voters might be unsettled by the prospect of ‘no deal’.
Brexit was a Black Box
I apparently contradict myself here. Although the election was not all about Brexit, that doesn’t mean that Brexit was an entirely insignificant factor. Remainers are still claiming that people voted to leave the EU on the basis of inadequate information and from a position of ignorance. That is clearly not true, but it’s fair to say that there is still a great deal of confusion abroad (in the UK). Whatever Nigel Farage, and his Vicar on Earth Julia Hartley-Brewer, might say, British people did not vote against Single Market membership or in favour of a radical reduction in immigration. Though they might have had such considerations in mind, they voted to leave the EU — i.e. not to be bound by its treaties, nor to be represented in the EU Parliament, nor to be ultimately subject to ECJ judgments, and so forth. That’s all that was on the ballot paper on 23 June 2016. (Liechtenstein does not have unqualified free movement, and Norway does, yet both are members of the Single Market, and neither is a member of the EU. But this is an argument for another time.) Other details should be a matter for domestic elections, and always will be. Even when the Brexit ‘deal’ is done, it’s surely likely that our precise relationship with Europe and the EU might change over time as political parties win and lose elections. Indeed, it would be odd, and undemocratic, if that were not the case.
The Tories needed to spell out what ‘no deal’ would mean, and whilst it’s not something I would ever want to see, even I could make the case for “WTO Rules” if called upon to do so. It’s entirely reasonable that a party expecting to be conducting exit negotiations would want to keep their powder dry regarding the details, but the electorate deserved greater clarity over what might constitute both a ‘bad deal’ and ‘no deal’. Simply to say, effectively, “Trust in Theresa’s strong and stable leadership” was not enough, especially as she began to look as though she were neither.
No Brexit Vision
Again, I contradict my first point… but then it was the Conservative Party itself that tried to make the election about Brexit. It would have been comparatively easy to sketch out a vision of Britain in a way that would not have compromised the UK’s negotiating position. For example, Remainers would have us believe that EUsceptics wanted to leave the EU in order to rip-up workers’ rights and protections. As this is clearly not the case, why did the Tories not make a commitment not only to retain these protections but even enhance them? After all, the UK already goes way beyond the EU minimum on things like maternity leave, for example. The manifesto should have ‘talked up’ Brexit far more, outlining a positive vision from the UK after it leaves the EU.
Brexiteers, but not Leavers
Everyone knows that Mrs May was a Remainer, and so were many of her cabinet. The Conservative Party is committed to Brexit (rightly) because it is a democratic party and the people have spoken. However, the reason that the Conservative Party is the most successful democratic political party in history has been its ability to change, adapt and properly own ideas that it once opposed. Once the party of mercantilism and protectionism (the Corn Laws), it made (for a time) Free Trade its rallying cry. It had to do so again after the hopeless leadership of Joseph Chamberlain and his ‘Tariff Reform League’ in 1906. Even in the past year, the spectre of electorally disastrous Chamberlainism has reared its economically incompetent head once more. The Tories first opposed Catholic Emancipation, yet were the party that brought it about in 1829. They once opposed votes for women, and yet in 1928 were the party that equalised the franchise. They once opposed the statutory minimum wage and, if you had suggested in the 1980s that it would be a future Tory government that would legislate for same-sex marriage, no one would have believed you.
And yet, when it comes to Brexit now, one feels that the Tories still haven’t really caught up. Yes, the people have spoken and Brexit will happen. But are they really convinced of the arguments? Are they now true believers? Do they see leaving the EU as a golden opportunity for Britain, or regard it as a necessary exercise in ‘democracy’, through gritted teeth? We didn’t hear much at all from Theresa May during the campaign, but I do not recall hearing any spark of enthusiasm or hope on the topic of Brexit. It just seemed like a task that had to be completed, something to be ‘getting on with’ rather than ‘relishing’.
Strong and Stable
I have no idea who came up with this nonsense, and it is, of course, easy to speak with the benefit of hindsight. But can we imagine Seumus Milne suggesting that Corbyn be sold as ‘patriotic and tough on terrorism’ or Bernard Ingham trying to stress Margaret Thatcher’s ‘warm and cuddly’ qualities? I don’t know Theresa May, but I have friends who do, stretching back to her university days, and they speak highly and warmly of her. She strikes me as somewhat school-mistressy, dull, hardworking, cautious, sensible, careful, occasionally sharp, shy, self-deprecating, unshowy, and self-contained. These are not necessarily bad traits in a politician or even a Prime Minister, but they are a long way from the ‘strong and stable’ ball-breaking figure the campaign led with. ‘Cautious and careful’ would have been a more accurate couplet, and would have played with voters pretty well. None of us wants to feel that we are being led by a risk-taking megalomaniac, after all.
People want honesty in politics. They have swallowed the line about Corbyn being ‘honest’ and ‘straightforward’ (even if he is far from honest about the murderous dictators and regimes he has cosied up to over the years). Next to Theresa, who just seemed like the sad figure of the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind grand artifice, Corbyn seemed ‘authentic’. Politicians are what they are, and need not hide it.
Remember Dave? You know, the Prime Minister who pretended to be a man of the people who supported West Spurs United, or whatever? No one was taken in by his desperate attempts to pretend he was anything other than an Eton toff. Compare him to Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, who never sought to hide his poshness or erudition, yet was elected mayor (twice) in what is undoubtedly a Labour city.
The Tories should have played to Mrs May’s strengths, even if those strengths were rather dull and understated.
Negative not Positive
I inevitably come back to the EU Referendum here (and, inter alia the Scottish Referendum). The Tory campaign, once the shit started to hit the fan, was almost entirely negative. When Corbyn’s team put out a ridiculous and slightly offensive Twitter graphic suggesting that only Corbyn’s Labour would ‘unlock the potential’ of BME people in the UK, he was rightly pilloried. And, as amusing as the tweets of Lewisham boy Major James Cleverly MP were (“I’m waiting for Jeremy to unlock my potential”) they missed the point. Cleverly and his fellow tweeters are already successful. Corbyn was speaking to a much larger hinterland, where plenty of ethnic minority kids feel left behind. Corbyn’s claim that Labour would unlock non-white potential was condescending nonsense, but it was still a positive message.
Corbyn is a Britain-hating, Western culture-hating Marxist who has consistently sided with our enemies, and despises our Crown, constitution, flag, and way of life. He thinks the wrong side won the Cold War. For all his protests to the contrary, he is extremely relaxed about anti-semitic abuse among his own supporters. He is easy to attack, but it’s like water off a duck’s back, especially as far as the unhinged trustafarians among his Momentum supporters are concerned. Jeremy has a message of hope, for a better future. Yes, he once said that better future was Venezuela and appeared alongside clerics who preached violence, but now, well, wibble.
Jeremy’s army of young supporters do not remember the terror of the IRA bombing campaign. They do not remember the Cold War, or the Falklands, and they certainly do not remember the disaster of 1970s Labour government or the pain of Labour’s reconstruction from oblivion in the 1980s.
Jeremy may have seemed like an easy target, but the Tories failed to learn the lessons of recent campaigns. ‘Yes’ came within a whisker of winning the Scots Indy Ref because they seemed to have the more hopeful and optimistic message (no matter that it was pie in the sky). ‘Leave’ won the EU Referendum largely because the official campaign rejected the xenophobic negativity of Farage et al and painted a liberal, positive picture of life outside the EU. The Remainers ran a negative campaign about the horrors that would befall us if we voted to stay. Project Hope will always have a better chance of winning than Project Fear.
Yes, Diane Abbott is the thickest person ever to get a Cambridge degree. Yes, Emily Thornberry is the personification of sneering, lazy condescension. Yes, John McDonnell is patently a thoroughly nasty piece of work… but the Tory message should have offered something brighter. An exciting future full of opportunity. We failed to make that offer clearly enough.
That’s plainly a topic for another day/post, but what is needed more than anything now is humility. In other words, exactly the opposite quality that the Conservatives demonstrated in the election.