Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in London. File
Tom Peck, The Independent
Twenty years ago, not altogether long after Blair’s landslide election victory, and with William Hague driving around the country in a rather mad “Keep the Pound” white van, I happened to go on a school sixth form trip to be in the audience on the BBC’s Question Time.
I can clearly recall, verbatim, the first question put to the panel. “Is the Tory Party self-destructing, and should we be lamenting its passing?” The answer was from a bright, young future Liberal Democrat leader by the name of Charlie Kennedy, who said something along the lines of: “Oh the Tory Party is never finished. You might think it’s finished, you might even have driven a stake right through its heart, but even then it’ll still come back.”
So, 20 years later, as the Conservatives stare down the barrel of electoral wipeout in both the local elections and the curious pantomime that is the European parliament elections, it is certainly worth considering the repeating historical likelihood that reports of the death of the Tory Party have been greatly exaggerated.
Certainly they have painted themselves not so much into a corner as onto a tightrope. Try and peer a few months or even years into the future, and it is hard to see how they are not doomed if they fail to deliver Brexit, and equally doomed if they succeed.
Their members, so we are led to believe, demand hard Brexit and will demand a hard Brexiteer leader within the coming weeks. The party’s MPs will have to conspire to prevent them getting the opportunity to make those demands. They might well not be able to.
Brexit has mutated everything. Its effects on the UK’s major and indeed minor political parties has been like the First World War on the powers of Europe. Natural courses of history have been fundamentally twisted. There have been revolutions. There may be more yet to come.
But it has also made things appear changed that might, might, have stayed the same. The Tories have been in government for nine years. They have contested three elections. Governing parties having their electoral backsides handed to them at such a point is a rite of political passage.
Nigel Farage is crying betrayal and his Brexit party will clean up at the European parliament elections. But Nigel Farage cried betrayal at 10.30pm on 23 June 2016, when he thought he had lost the referendum. Back then, he blamed the defeat he was expecting on the government’s underhand decision to extend the voter registration window. Democracy had been undermined, he said then, by allowing as many people as possible to vote. Had there been no Brexit, Nigel Farage would still be crying betrayal now. “The Eurosceptic genie is out of the bottle. Win or lose this battle tonight, we will win this war,” he said. “We will get our borders back. We will get our country back.”
The European parliamentary elections would still be happening in a few weeks, and Nigel Farage would be about to clean up yet again, just as he did five years ago.
Of course, there would be no prime minister Theresa May, there would have been no disastrous election campaign, no personality cult built around a woman with no personality. Though we must imagine she would be on manoeuvres in the Tory leadership contest that would be happening right now anyway, the one to replace David Cameron. That is, of course, if the Windrush scandal, for which her Home Office bears ultimate responsibility, had not finished her off. Prime Minister Cameron would have had almost no choice but to sack her. And it would not have been an entirely cosmetic defenestration, as was the case with Amber Rudd.
Political predictions at this point in time are pointless. Nobody knows what will happen with Brexit and when. Nobody knows when the next general election might be, and most crucially of all, nobody knows who the Tory prime minister is who will lead the party and the country though it.
The voters are hopelessly divided over Brexit, but there is also a yearning simply to vote for someone, anyone, worth voting for. There are able communicators, debate winners, in the Tory ranks. That Nigel Farage is the brightest star in the political firmament is not the normal run of things. The age of May and Corbyn is an exception, and its days are numbered.
The Tories do not need a miracle, they just need to get their act together. Even against the terrible backdrop of Brexit, there is still Jeremy Corbyn. There has never been a more forgiving time to be even passably normal. It is by no means beyond the bounds of the possible that they might just do it. It is, as ever, far too early to celebrate the Tories’ self-destruction.
Theresa May defended the decision to leave without a deal. She said it was the only way to implement the 2016 referendum.
I have always been sceptical about Jeremy Corbyn, but I have to give him some credit for his handling of the Brexit crisis. Which is to say he persistently made it worse while pretending to make it better. It’s masterful, in its way.
Ask a Tory backbencher or minister when Theresa May should stand down, and the answer depends heavily on who they want to succeed her. Hardline Eurosceptics can’t wait to force May out of Downing Street. They have every incentive to inflict a fourth Commons defeat on her Brexit deal next month; they hope to install one of their tribe in her place to complete the Brexit process.
When the prime minister applied for and got a second extension to the Article 50 period, she did so because she wanted to save the country from the disastrous consequences of leaving the EU without a deal. She did the right thing, putting the country first.
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