Thursday

19th Jul 2018

Column / Brexit Briefing

May’s election juggernaut

  • May at her party conference in October 2016. The Conservatives’ mantra is that voting Labour would bring a "coalition of chaos" and that only May offers "strong and stable leadership". (Photo: Reuters)

Some of Theresa May’s supporters think of her as "Maggie mark two". Her decision to call a snap election certainly underscored a ruthless streak that Margaret Thatcher, her forerunner as British prime minister, would have admired.

The Conservative juggernaut towards a one-party state is rolling forward.

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  • Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would quite happily go through the six week campaign without talking about the EU. (Photo: Matthew Kirby)

Labour’s campaign carries a sense of impending doom around it. Polling at around 25 percent and heading for a thrashing, party officials have come to rely on gallows humour.

The Liberal Democrats and the Greens, meanwhile, are building on a meagre base of 10 parliamentary seats out of 650 between them. They can hope for no more than modest gains.

Such is the scale of the Conservatives’ dominance that Ukip, the Brexit party, has slumped to 7 percent and has very little chance of winning a second Westminster seat.

Ukip leader Paul Nuttall reluctantly agreed to stand on Thursday (27 April) after spending an hour of his party’s campaign launch locked in a room in a bid to avoid answering reporters. Nuttall has only had a couple of months of respite since a humiliating by-election defeat in Stoke - a Leave heartland.

Faced with the imminent prospect of the most decisive election victory for a UK government since 1935, groups on the left are desperately urging a "progressive alliance" between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens, in a bid to prevent the centre-left and pro-EU vote from splitting three ways.

It is a noble idea that has been attempted before.

It also tends to emanate from the same London-centric elites.

Brexit as election central issue

On Wednesday (26 APril), Gina Miller, who defeated the May government in the High Court over its plans to trigger Article 50 without an MP vote, held a party in central London attended by Labour luminaries Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, to discuss her planned election fund to support pro-Remain candidates.

Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair has also said that he is prepared to "work with anyone" to stop candidates who back "Brexit at any cost".

With Brexit the central issue of the campaign, there will certainly be more tactical voting than in previous elections. But as a strategy for the whole country, an anti-Tory pact is clutching at straws.

Corbyn would quite happily go through the six-week campaign without talking about the EU. But the terms of debate are being dictated to him, and neither he nor his Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer have convincing answers.

Ten months after the referendum, Labour is no closer to resolving the dilemma of being a Remain-supporting party representing predominantly Leave-voting constituencies.

As a result, the party’s script for its candidates on Brexit published earlier this week tries to face both ways. It says that the election “is not a rerun of the EU referendum” and that Labour only objects to the Tories’ “reckless approach to Brexit”, rather than to leaving the EU itself. Nor would a Labour government promise a second referendum on the terms of Brexit.

On Monday (24 April), the party meekly accepted that free movement of labour across the EU will have to end when the UK leaves the bloc.

Labour will effectively run two campaigns. Candidates will be allowed to campaign for the softest Brexit imaginable in Remain-supporting areas, but will accept the mantra that “Brexit means Brexit” in Leave seats. In its former heartland, in Wales and in industrial towns in northern England, Labour will emphasise the need to control borders and immigration.

Repeated script

For a party with pretentions of forming a government, this strategy is a bit like being sent out to face a typhoon armed with an umbrella.

It is also part of the reason why Labour has refused to join a formal anti-Tory pact.

Tactical voting and election pacts also cut both ways. Brexiteer Conservatives are cutting deals with Ukip in a number of seats. In Kettering, for example, the staunchly pro-Brexit MP Philip Hollobone has struck at "memorandum of understanding" with Ukip, involving a regular forum for Ukip members if he was re-elected.

The Conservatives’ message is that voting Labour would bring a "coalition of chaos" and that only May offers "strong and stable leadership".

This is the script - already repeated ad nauseam - for the next few weeks. In truth, the Tories probably need not bother campaigning. There is no opposition worthy of the name.

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