2017 05 – Editorial – Trusting Theresa May

Trust Me, I’m A Vicar’s Daughter

With Labour trailing the Tories by around 20 per cent in the polls, Corbyn’s support for a snap general election on 8 June has been called an act of political suicide. But if he had opposed the holding of an election the media would have said the Labour party was running scared of the voters. It would also have been an historically unique act on the part of the main opposition party in parliament. Opposition parties mostly welcome a general election as an opportunity to get rid of the government. The election campaign begins officially on 3 May and strange things can happen over the six week period. Labour has about half a million members and many of them will be out there campaigning. Face-to-face meetings can make a big difference. Political armageddon for Labour is not therefore a done deal.

The risks are great. But if the Tories keep even half their current lead, Theresa May will be returned as Prime Minister in a much stronger position. She will then claim she has the endorsement of the people to negotiate a Brexit that wholly favours Britain. In other words a hard Brexit. This was the clear implication in her statement to the House of Commons on 19 April, when she said that the government’s small majority wasn’t enough to negotiate from a position of strength. This was an odd comment to make given that MPs endorsed the voters’ decision to leave the European Union by voting overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50. Yet in spite of her tough hard Brexit talk, May knows she will have to compromise to get a deal that suits Britain. Compromises that may not be to the liking of her Eurosceptics.

But the overwhelming support of MPs for Article 50 wasn’t enough for Theresa May, the vicar’s daughter. She wanted complete obedience from her congregation in the chamber of the House. She claimed, bizarrely, that the country was united following the referendum result, but that parliament was divided. She accused Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP of attempting to sabotage the Brexit negotiations and of threatening to oppose a final deal. This distortion of the respective parties position didn’t deter the Europhobe Daily Mail from urging May to ‘Crush The Saboteurs’. Who would have thought that we have a parliamentary democracy where the duty of the opposition is to oppose the government? Does this ‘newspaper’, which once supported Adolph Hitler, question that in a parliamentary democracy it is the duty of the opposition to oppose the government?

Her claim that her government has delivered the ‘certainty, stability and strong leadership’ that the country needs, also begs the question why she is so keen for a general election having said on a number of occasions in recent months that it was not necessary. One can only deduce that she wants to remove all meaningful scrutiny of the Brexit negotiations and ease the passage of a final deal. She presents a bold face, implying that her government will get a good deal for Britain from the negotiations. But in reality she knows it could be a bad deal. Which is why she said a few months ago that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, and on every other occasion, Theresa May grasps the opportunity to put a positive gloss on what she claims are the government’s achievements: record funding of education and the NHS, protecting pensions and creating over a million more jobs. While simultaneously attacking a divided Labour party and its weak leadership, its economic incompetence, and its softness on defence and security. Such is the certainty of her and the government’s superiority over Labour that it leaves one puzzled why she refuses to take part in TV debates with Jeremy Corbyn and other party leaders. She can wag her finger and attack Corbyn and Labour in the largely private sanctuary of PMQs. But clearly isn’t prepared to defend the government’s record in a televised debate with Corbyn and Labour in front of a potential audience of millions.

May’s clear intention is to focus the election campaign on Brexit. Her message to voters will be to trust her to deliver on the people’s verdict to leave the European Union. But this message ignores the fact that 48.1% voted to remain in the EU. Why should they urge her to deliver something they didn’t vote for? The Tory 2015 manifesto proposed that Britain should remain a member of the single market. Now Theresa May wants to leave the single market in order to stop immigration from the European Union. Undoubtedly, immigration from the EU was a major factor in the minds of those who voted to leave. May says she will deliver on that, but her Brexit ministers and also employers have indicated that Britain will continue to need these workers. This leaves May with a serious, apparently unsolvable, problem. As Home Secretary in the Cameron government she was responsible for immigration numbers. She failed abysmally, with net migration increasing year on year, most of it from outside the EU over which the government has control.

On the domestic front, a strengthened Tory government will enable May and Hammond to ditch the economic policies of Cameron and Osborne. They will be free to set their own economic agenda, including policies on direct and indirect taxes. May has already indicated that she intends to make taxation an election issue with her boast that the Tories are the low tax party. This may turn out to be a gross error, narrowing her and Hammond’s options if tax revenues are lower than forecast. There will be much obfuscation from May and Hammond, but tax rises under the Tories are more likely than not.

Over the course of the campaign Labour can expect a Tory blitz on its tax policies following John McDonnell’s intention to increase income tax on those earning £70,000 and above. But the party can counter this by playing to its strengths on the NHS, on school funding and on social justice issues such as fairness and inequality, which polls show resonate with the voters. Corbyn has already highlighted these issues since the election was called. He needs to continue to hammer home Labour’s strong message of support for a fairer, socially just society.

But Labour has a hard task ahead if it is to form a government. It is vulnerable to a loss of at least 50 seats in England, where the Tories were in second place in 2015. Thirty of these seats, with a majority of less than 3,000, are particularly vulnerable. Just twelve of the thirty are in the midlands and north of England. Nevertheless, Labour faces an uphill fight to retain many of its core midland and northern constituencies where the Leave vote was high. It is also vulnerable to losing five seats in Wales, where its majority was less than 3,000 at the last general election.

It is a truism that divided parties don’t win elections. The general election has therefore given Labour the means to cast aside its internal squabbling and come together as a united party. With the odd exception the party appears to be united. But the odd exception is the former party leader and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Within hours of the calling of a general election, Blair issued a statement in which he seemed to urge voters to support a candidate who was on the Remain side during the referendum campaign.

The statement warns against a ‘Brexit At Any Cost’ majority in the House of Commons. Blair’s counter to this in the statement is for voters to elect ‘as many MPs as possible with an open mind on this issue who are prepared to vote according to the quality of the deal and the interests of the British people’. In Blair’s mind this clearly rules out pro-Brexit candidates, as Commons debates so far have shown that it is the Remain supporting members who have shown an open mind by constantly challenging Theresa May. Presumably, in seats held by pro-Brexit Labour candidates, Blair would urge voters to support the passionately pro-Remain Liberal Democrats.

In calling a general election, Theresa May has answered the prayers of Lord Mandelson who sees it as an opportunity to dump Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. Mandelson knows that only a Tory victory will achieve this. He is therefore effectively praying for this. While there is a chorus of voices within the Parliamentary Labour Party calling for Ken Livingstone to be expelled from the party for alleged antisemitism, there is nothing but the sound of silence over Blair’s and Mandelson’s anti-Labour comments. With this in mind, we can only pray for a Labour victory on 8 June.