Local elections are notoriously bad indicators of public opinion at large, often reflecting voters’ concerns over issues like bin collections and school buses as much as national politics. In spite of this popular cloak of ambiguity, last week’s election results show clearly a Conservative party in total meltdown. Despite an emerging consensus that both parties were rejected by voters, only one of them faces a fundamental, existential threat.
The heavy losses of “Shire” voters suffered by the Conservatives on Thursday’s election spell deep trouble for their supporters, and the focus on the performance of both parties downplays the cost of this Brexit fiasco on the Conservative party’s identity. No longer can they call themselves “the natural party of government” – clearly voters don’t agree. In recent years, the internal divisions within the Labour party caused doubts to arise over its very right to exist. Then, Conservative MPs looked on and smirked. Now, the smiles should be long gone, as they face a crisis of an even bigger scale. The party which predates the existence of British politics itself is teetering on the brink of collapse.
The loss at the local elections of over 1,300 councillors and 45 councils should, in a political world that was still tethered to reality, not just raise alarm bells but break them. These deep losses extend as far as the deepest of blue constituencies, with Windsor and Maidenhead Royal Borough conservatives losing twenty-four seats on the Prime Minister’s own doorstep.
At the start of the 2017 general election campaign, the age at which the average voter moved from supporting the Labour party to the Conservative party was 34. By the end of that campaign it was 47. Now it is 51. If the Conservative party still harbour any hopes of winning a general election (and if we’re honest it’s doubtful that they do), then the next generation of their local, regional and national leaders must act now. Theresa May has found herself bound and gagged by the hard-right of her party and padlocked by the fantasies of her own red lines on Brexit. In short, she has overseen a government of consistent crisis and, unless she can learn the tricks of the illusionist Houdini (and fast!), she has left herself no escape from a self-dug grave.
The intransigence and stubborness of May’s premiership has cost her party dearly. The damage of the bitter legacy of her government, which has overseen the worst self-inflicted national crisis since Suez, may be too deep to overcome. But in actual fact, the solution to this chaos is clear, and attainable.
If we cast our minds back to just over a month ago, although it feels like a lifetime ago (and one we’d rather forget), the Boles Amendment lauded by even those on the Labour frontbench – a Common Market 2.0 – failed marginally after ferocious whipping by the government. The Boles moment can be pinpointed as the moment when common sense evaporated from the Conservative party, and it was the moment that the calamitous results of these local elections were conceived. Had Conservative MPs voted in favour, they may well have been in a far stronger position that they are in currently. And many of us are left wondering: is it too late for the Conservative party to hear reason, and pull themselves and our country back from the brink of implosion?
The extent of the calamity is made clear by the recent actions of disgraced former minister, Gavin Williamson, who, on being sacked from the cabinet, has splashed his personal assaults on the Prime Minister across the press. This tumour of irrationality now has now infected and spread throughout the Conservative party, with all the old rules being thrown out of the window. The far-right of the party now act as though they are intent on the party’s destruction, stirred by the rise of Trump and the alt-right in America. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that many of them were weighing up jumping ship and joining UKIP. To claim this path of revolutionary right-wing politics, they have bled poison into the Conservative party and picked off the moderate Tory MPs, such as Nick Boles and Dominic Grieve.
A party with no room for them is a party that will suffer, and a national politics with no room for advocates of moderate and consensual government is a country on the road to a very dark place indeed. For the sake of our country, one can only hope the Boles moment is soon surpassed rather than written into the history books of British politics.
For Labour, last Thursday’s result is not a particularly pleasant picture, but nor should it be a particularly worrying one. There is of course a sense that Remain voters are gravitating towards the Liberal Democrats rather than to Labour, but it shows Labour’s constructive ambiguity on Brexit has payed off for them, at least electorally, given their ability to hold on in leave areas and make some inroads into the South East.
But the criticisms of this approach have firm foundations. With a government fighting for its survival, the time to sit by and spectate should be over. Labour, if they choose to take anything from these results, should speak to their values and articulate a clear vision of how we escape this Brexit quagmire we have found ourselves in. They can push towards the Boles Amendment, May willing, or they can pull away from the ‘centre’ and push for a People’s Vote. In many ways, a clear message is the overriding concern for Labour now, in contrast to the chaos which defines the current state of the government.
For now, this seems incredibly unlikely – Labour’s approach to Brexit has also been hampered by the hugely diverse views held by members. Whether they could settle on one stance conclusively is far from clear. But if Labour takes this opportunity to lead, there’s no telling the rewards that could be reaped. This is not, after all, a strong or stable majority government. The longer Mrs May’s deal remains unpassed without any prospective alternative available to her, the greater the chance of a general election to break the deadlock and Labour capitalising on the Conservative Party’s weakness.