The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Kill off the false promise of Brexit... or Corbyn WILL win
THERE were two good reasons for holding last week’s General Election, and neither had much to do with romantic images of cosy walking holidays or the breezy Welsh hilltops where Theresa May supposedly concluded she must go to the country.
The calculations were hard-nosed and clear: all the evidence pointed to an easy Conservative win with a big majority and, crucially, a new five-year mandate would have ensured that Brexit be set in concrete before the next Election.
It didn’t work out like that. As some of us could have told Mrs May, history likes to repeat itself.
I was there in 1974 when, four days before polling, Prime Minister Ted Heath’s strong public support began ebbing away. Harold Wilson had predicted: ‘We will catch them in the last week on prices.’ He was right.
If Wilson’s socialism was bad enough, Jeremy Corbyn’s brand is in a different league as his ultimate gamble is with the nation’s defence, and that only serves to prove how high the stakes now are. So this is a time for truth. For a start we can be clear that this was an unusually poor campaign, crippled by the reverse over what has been branded the ‘dementia tax’ and some unwise sloganeering. It can be no great surprise that Mrs May’s two key advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, have resigned.
But more important is the future. This Government will not last, despite all the embarrassing talk of stability, certainty,
The Government won’t last – and everyone knows it
glossy uplands and every other deluded version of an unattainable tomorrow.
Behind the empty phrases of uniting in the national interest, of serving all the people, lies old-fashioned political calculation. Cold-as-ice, hard-as-steel calculation. Every political party in the House of Commons will have worked out its own self-interest, and it is that – and only that – which will guide their actions in the coming weeks and months.
It is true that the Government is not under immediate threat. It will not collapse straight away. Another expensive election does not suit all the parties of opposition, particularly the Scottish Nationalists. Moreover, the public are in no mood for it.
Again, I’ve been here before. With such a negligible advantage in the Commons, the Government knows that every seat counts, and that every resignation or sudden death courts disaster.
‘We are in the by-election business, Michael,’ the Conservative whips told me in the 1970s. That is why this Government will not run its term.
The mathematics are barely workable, yet the problem facing Mrs May is worse still. The country itself is divided by Brexit and there are no grounds to believe that will change.
I have listened to the assertions that we will regain our sovereignty, discover new markets and worldwide opportunities. I have heard the demands backed with nationalistic jingo that we should have new confidence in ourselves. Yet not a single fact has emerged to underpin this rhetoric as the currency devalues and inflation creeps in, skilled workers depart and the commercial world plans in ever more convincing detail to relocate.
And here is another uncomfortable truth: the real, underlying frustration that influences public opinion here, in Europe and in America, is the consequence of the austerity forced on our citizens.
It results from their extravagance, from the overspending of the corporate world and the unsustainable levels of public expenditure before 2008. The crash produced a whirlpool of resentment that exists to this day and the political sharks are still feeding in it.
There is no easy way out of the crisis that faces this country and particularly the Conservative Party. There are so many urgent challenges – housing, education, the shortage of skills, to name but three. The imbalance in our public finances means there is no spare money to fuel an artificial economic boom.
The Government is unstable. Everyone knows it. And the uncertainty will eat into confidence. Even our European colleagues can work it out for themselves! What deal should they negotiate, with whom? In the meantime,
The crash led to a whirlpool of resentment
the opposition parties will wait, harrying, yes, but with no need to strike until the characteristic mid-term blues provoke the inevitable public cry for change.
What, then, should this weakened Government do? Corbyn is at the gates, a handful of seats away from No 10.
They should remember that David Cameron, the only recent leader to secure a majority for the party, did so with an inclusive One Nation agenda. They should recognise that every year, two per cent of their traditional elderly supporters move on to be replaced by two per cent of young and more idealistic voters. They should note, too, that the raucous propaganda of Fleet Street is being drowned in a new world of electronic communication.
Above all, they should try to lance the Brexit boil.
I believe it is just possible – just – that a re-elected Angela Merkel and a newly empowered Emmanuel Macron might revisit the negotiations on immigration.
We are not the only European country to feel the political consequences, after all. The avalanche of economic migrants, the fraught negotiations with Turkey and growing domestic anxieties mean that Europe as a whole has a powerful need to find some way of limiting the scale.
In the meantime, the Government could help defuse the issue, not through rhetoric, but through what ought to be its primary business – policies.
First, it should remove students from the immigration targets; they are a valuable boost to the economy. Second, it should do something about the majority of immigrants who come from outside Europe and have nothing to do with the EU. Third, the rights of British and European citizens to remain in their present countries of domicile – a source of understandable anxiety and tension – should be resolved as soon as possible.
There is much speculation about the position of Theresa May. But changing the Prime Minister will do nothing to address the powerful dynamics at work in the electorate.
We should first concentrate on changing our policies if we truly expect to navigate the ever more turbulent world around us.